- By Madeleine Johansson
Ever wondered: What happens to the plastic I throw away?
Every year around three million tonnes of plastic waste leave Europe heading for China. A great part of it ends up in substandard and often illegal treatment plants where the plastic is transformed into new raw material which in the end returns to the European market in form of “new” plastic products, including toys and baby bottles.
The business behind this is huge, says Claudia Salvestrini, head of a consortium that works actively to stop the illegal part of the trade.
The global trafficking of plastic waste was discovered nearly 15 years ago, but still not enough has been done to seriously tackle the problem. One of those who are actively trying to change that is Claudia Salvestrini, director of the consortium Polieco, a control authority in the plastic recycling industry in Italy. She has traveled to China about thirty times since 2005 to find out what happens to the plastic. Under false identity as a businesswoman and often equipped with a hidden camera, she has repeatedly risked her own life in search of information.
“It’s not easy. Chinese business culture tends to open with cautious distrust from the beginning. You have to demonstrate that you are serious. I have been eating scorpions and doing all sorts of things in order to see what I have seen.“ she says.
Salvestrini has found good help from serious entrepreneurs in China, who are disadvantaged by the unfair competition from the illegal plastic recycling plants. One of the vastest that Salvestrini says she encountered appeared to be used by the INTCO Group, which among others collaborates with the IKEA group.
Children, sometimes unable to find other work due to disabilities such as being deaf and mute, live and sleep in the same places as they work, with minimal protection. The cleaning plants are not at all like those found in The Western world, as a facility that complies with EU regulations for example will cost around 20 million euro to build, we are finding companies using East Asian plants built without the same regulations, in breach even of the lower, local regulations at a mere fraction of the cost.
In China there are some industrial recycling plants with a consistently superiour quality, however, thousands of small independent, often unlicenced recycling plants. Salvestrini tells of a cleaning processes that should be performed in several steps, with special chemicals, but instead she found very simple routines. Often a simple washing before the plastic is ground and then resold as new, raw plastic, for melting and reforming.
“That is not enough!” Salvestrini exclaims passionately.
There are plastics that have been in contact with carcinogenic substances such as gasoline for example. The top three millimeters of some plastics can become saturated due to absorption, therefore this kind of plastic should, in practice, be separated from the other plastics even after undergoing a cleaning according to all standards. What Salvestrini found instead was that it is being sold to produce new plastic products, including toys and baby bottles, which are then exported back to the European market. Consumers have no way of knowing how their specific product has been made, she says.
Salvestrini and Polieco became aware of the problem 13 years ago, when suddenly you could hardly find plastic waste for recycling in Italy. When they began to investigate the tracks led mainly to China, but also to India and Malaysia. The plastic production industry in China is in constant need of more raw material, and since industry wages in the independent plantations are low, the waste traders can pay the companies more lucrative rates than European recycling palnts. Today 65% of the recyclable plastic waste disappears from the Italian market, totally unaccounted for.
This is not an issue isolated to Italy, statistics from Defra show that 67% of the plastic packaging waste in the UK is processed abroad. ISWA (The International Solid Waste Association) show that the UK is the fifth top exporter of plastic waste in the world, exporting 700 kilotonnes in 2011. The lion’s share going again to China, where a staggering 87% of the EU’s commercial plastic waste is exported.
What percentage of this trade ends up in illegal plantations is difficult to estimate, according to Europol “illegal waste trafficking and disposal activities have become one of the fastest growing areas of organised crime”. The market is complex, and criminal intermediaries take advantage of this, making it difficult for the waste producers to know exactly where the waste ends up. Over the years the routes traveled by the plastic waste has become increasingly contrived.
Today many containers make a first stop in countries like Holland, Germany, Slovenia and France because if the plantation’s address is in Shanghai, for instance, the risks of loosing control of the process is greater than if you send the container to an EU country, says Nicola D’Alessandro, a colonel in the Italian financial police, who for several years investigated the traffic.
Polieco and the police in Italy have also checked the information on the final destination of a number of containers, and concluded that many were false. One of these recycling facilities, that was to take care of hundreds of tonnes of plastic was actually found to be situated in a small office on the 13th floor in Hong Kong explains Salvestrini, not the administration address, the actual processing plant was a 13th floor office.
Claudia Salvestrini has personally reported dozens of companies involved in this illegal trade, many of which are now under judicial investigation.
However in Italy, this kind of activism comes at a high price, Salvestrini’s home has been shot at and her office ravaged by arson and she had been sent animal intestines by post, lovingly carved with Chinese inscriptions. Still, not one to be discouraged Salvestrini continues her work as a waste trafficking whistle blower.
“I do it for the sake of health, the children’s health and for the honest firms in China and Europe that risk having to close because of the dishonest competition”
In April, she presented her summary of the situation to the European Parliament and she is convinced that this is the only way to solve the problems.
We need transparency and international laws that makes it possible to physically track the waste. You need to do border controls from beginning to end of the journey and not stop the controls after the first international border. For that, you need international cooperation.
Edit by S.Q.Hafiz@theinternational.org.uk