China to reject our waste: Rubbish veto may make us face reality

EARLY analysis of Britain’s latest position on Brexit suggests the Tory government is still at the have-their-cake-and-eat-it stage; that they cling to the view they can enjoy the benefits
to trade offered by EU membership but on their own, very particular terms. 

It is unlikely that aspiration will survive the negotiations ahead but the wanting-it-both-ways charge can, unfortunately, be levelled at this society too, albeit in a different sphere.

That discomforting charge has been underlined by the
announcement that China will no longer act as the dump of last resort for Europe’s recycling waste. Chinese processors deal with 87% of Europe’s plastic waste, allowing us pretend our capacity to generate huge quantities of slow-to-degrade refuse is inconsequential. We have not been shy about exploiting this opportunity for denial. China has told the World Trade Organisation it will stop importing “all scrap plastics and unsorted paper” this year. This veto is an inevitable
response to the level of contaminated waste reaching China. Earlier this year, paper leaving Ireland for China was found to be contaminated. The shipment was repatriated at considerable cost. Had it not been rejected at that point the cost would have fallen, unfairly, on the Chinese processors.

Despite our capacity to generate huge quantities of waste, and occasionally dispose of it in the most anti-social ways, we continue to offer visceral, unrelenting opposition to industrial solutions to the waste problems we create. An example of this is that fact that an incinerator first proposed for
Cork harbour in November 2001, almost 16 years ago, is still entangled in the planning process.

Indaver, the waste management company behind a €160m incinerator proposed for Cork Harbour have most recently clashed with opponents to their proposal over a European Commission document which sets out the role of waste-to-energy processes, such as incineration, in dealing with waste. The EC reiterated the proximity principle that waste should be disposed of as near as possible to where it is produced
but the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment has rejected that interpretation. The Chinese decision supports, even if unintentionally, that position in the clearest, most practical way possible.

Like most of these debates in Ireland, this one has assumed a black-or-white character. Absolutes prevail and any prospect of a rational solution seems remote. We have, as a society, yet to accept that if we want to enjoy all the benefits of today’s world then there is a price to pay for that indulgence — and, in this case, that price is an endless flow of waste that we must deal with one way or another.

These issues are not alive just at community level. After all, Government policy for food and farm sector development — Foodwise 2025 — proposes expansion in meat and milk production that mean we cannot meet climate change obligations. We will sooner or later, like the hardcore Brexit camp, have to face the consequences of our actions and accept that we can’t have it both ways on waste generation and disposal, industrial farming, and climate change.

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