China’s coronavirus lockdown has brought a halt to the nation’s nascent efforts to recycle plastic trash.
While China is gradually opening up for business again, new ways of ordering food deliveries have involved increased use of single-use plastic bags, which Beijing had pledged to eliminate by the end of 2020.
During the recent coronavirus lockdown in China, restaurants increased online ordering services. Most of the food deliveries came in plastic containers that ended up being incinerated or in landfills.
According to a comprehensive report published by Bloomberg News on April 1, Beijing is one of 46 Chinese cities that had planned to launch mandatory garbage sorting systems by the end of 2020.
The capital had intended to begin that program in May, but with less than two weeks to go until the end of the month, there’s no sign of any preparations for it.
The BBC reported early this year that China’s largest rubbish dump—the size of roughly 100 football fields—is already full, 25 years ahead of schedule.
Plastic trash poses a worldwide challenge
The recycling of plastic waste poses a challenge not just for China but also for many nations around the world. And recycling alone will not be enough to fully protect the environment.
The problem in every country that produces plastics begins with the manufacturing process that creates plastic plates, bags, straws, and utensils. This process alone creates air pollution, which in turn contributes to the greenhouse emissions that create global warning.
Plastic has so many uses in modern life that it would be impossible to give it up. We can’t do without water and soft-drink bottles, trays, shopping bags, and all kinds of containers.
But the use of single-use plastic bags could be reduced even more than it has been in the big user countries such as China and the United States.
Many of these bags find their way into landfills or dumps and then on into rivers and oceans.
Marine animals large and small, ranging from fish to sea turtles, sharks, and whales can mistake small bits of colorful plastic for food. Once they consume it, they can die a slow death.
And once the animal dies, the plastic reenters the water, making it a threat to other animals.
Plastic carried by ocean currents has now entered places as far from the United States as the seemingly far-off Arctic and the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Queensland, Australia.
Plastics reach Antarctica
Nothing dramatizes the spread of plastics around the world more than their arrival in far-off Antarctica, a continent located at the South Pole.
Said to be the coldest place on earth, Antarctica is governed by an international treaty, with seven nations holding claims there.
Russia and the United States have constructed research facilities in Antarctica.
Time Magazine’s Aryn Baker, reporting from Antarctica in late April this year, describes how scientists working on beaches in a remote part of this supercontinent discovered shards of plastic floating in the surrounding waters.
The plastic was most likely shed from larger items breaking down over time.
Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization, once chartered a research vessel to document the state of marine life, including penguins, living on the beaches of Antarctica.
The scientists onboard looked at the impact of overfishing and the impacts of climate change and plastic pollution on marine life.
A striking photo shows two penguins looking on as Greenpeace crew members work to remove a large plastic boat fender that somehow ended up on a beach in Antarctica.
Antarctica is surrounded by a current that should protect it from any spillover of plastic from the Pacific Ocean. The presence of plastic reveals either gaps in that natural barrier or that fishing vessels and cruise ships may be responsible for its presence.
Their dumping of plastics is not nearly as bad as what can be found on other beaches in the Pacific.
But as one scientist described it, “it’s still worth thinking about that here at the end of the world where there are very few people, we still manage to dump a whole lot of trash in the ocean.”
Kirsten Thompson, a marine scientist from the U.K.’s University of Exeter, found plastic in Antarctica in undigested food that birds had regurgitated.
When animals mistake plastic for food, they can become “a rapid delivery system for poisons into an animal, which can then make its way up the food chain, eventually ending up in the fish that we humans are eating,” said Thompson.
As for the penguins observed by Aryn Baker, they seem “unperturbed by the junk scattered through their nesting grounds.”
But as the plastics break down, they release chemicals that can damage the health of these innocent animals.
Five Asian nations are reported to be producing more plastic waste than the rest of the world combined. They are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
But Thailand, which generates 27 million tons of waste per year, might be the place to look for solutions to the plastic waste problem.
The Southeast Asian nation has set an ambitious “3Rs” strategy aimed at recycling, reusing, and reducing plastic waste by at least three million tons a year.
Scientists, meanwhile, have been studying ways of dealing with plastic trash that will enable more efficient recycling.
Writing for Forbes Magazine, Scott Snowden describes how French scientists have discovered a new enzyme that can quickly break down plastic bottles into a product that can be recycled into higher-quality bottles.
Current technology only produces plastic that can be used for certain items, such as sweaters, carpets, sleeping bags, and jacket insulation.
But an enzyme that was first discovered in a compost heap of leaves eight years ago was able to reduce plastic bottles to chemical elements that can be efficiently reprocessed.
Carbios, the French company behind the discovery, says that it aims to achieve industrial-scale recycling of plastics within five years.
The firm has partnered with major companies, including Pepsi, Nestle, and L’Oréal in order to further advance its research and development work.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.