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On July 29, 2019, in Batam, Indonesia, customs inspecting a garbage container that will be returned to the shipper. Jakarta has returned seven containers this week to Hong Kong and France, considering them illegal. SEI RATIFA / AFP

While a bill "anti-waste" and for a more "circular economy" is being studied in Paris, France was caught this week by the global chaos installed for two and a half years in the sector of waste management. A spectacular crisis, shaking more than one certainty in consumer societies. Because it makes visible one of the hidden faces of a positively connoted sector, namely the sorting and recycling of waste. Interview with Thibault Turchet, legal manager at Zero Waste France.

It was a run-in system until Beijing put a stop to it . For decades, China has sent its ships full of manufacturing products across the developed world, bringing them back not empty but filled with low-value recyclable waste. For example, "sorting refusals" collected at home, but not profitable enough for the management industry of these countries, who preferred to dispose of them in low-cost countries.

By closing its doors to a large number of these residues that it absorbed as best as possible, mainly plastics but also soiled paper and other food, obviously shipped sometimes insufficiently sided by some companies of the largest consumer companies , starting with the United States, China has wreaked havoc on the sector. From the exporter to the carrier and well beyond. In the cities of Europe and North America, already.

Above all, several places in Southeast Asia have experienced chaos since 2017-2018. Actors have begun to voluntarily or reliably take over the import after the closure of Chinese ports, until the sudden health and environmental explosion in some countries such as Malaysia. Everyone now realizes that this is a more complex problem than the Western consumer would have imagined when putting waste into the sorting bin.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, or Sri Lanka, developing countries not at all prepared to absorb such a cluster, now seem very hostile to the idea of ​​seeing the garbage formerly shipped to China continue to arrive on their floor. They seek the parade, tighten the screws and return the elevator . On Monday, July 29, Indonesia announced that seven containers were leaving: household waste, plastic waste and hazardous materials in violation of the import rules.

Five were sent back to Hong Kong and two to France, a first for Paris. " When the container arrives, a notification will be sent to the waste holder (s) (manufacturers and distributors, Ed). The waste will have to be characterized in order to know what treatment to give them, "responded the French secretary of state in charge of these questions, adding that if the law and international rules had been violated, the producers and bearers could be bailed out. a penalty.

In early July, Indonesia has already returned eight containers to Australia. She also shipped five to the United States in June, and is still waiting for approvals to move another 42 containers to the United States, Australia and Germany, according to Agence France-Presse. Do developed countries send releases of their consumption and production system "illegally" to South-East Asia? Have they mostly closed their eyes on the hidden side of their sorting systems?

To discuss the ins and outs of this complex regional and global crisis, RFI interviewed Thibault Turchet, who is in charge of legal affairs at Zero Waste France , an environmental protection organization that is a member of the global alliance Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. Gaia), who published a noteworthy report on the issue in April 2019, after a lengthy field investigation. Zero Waste advocates to reduce and rethink the volume of our waste.

RFI: France is "waiting for information" on the content and destination of two containers filled with garbage. They were sent back to him by the customs of Indonesia. What is happening in Asia, Indonesia, with waste from developed countries?

Thibault Turchet : The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia in particular, receive waste that was previously intended for China. In any case, flows have increased significantly to those countries that are not prepared for such an influx of waste, often of poor quality. They are caught in a breach opened by China and rely on Western public opinion very sensitized, especially on the issue of plastic and environmental responsibility, to alert international authorities and Western countries. They want to receive less of this low quality waste.

Thursday, August 1, in the midst of the crisis caused by China, the French giant Veolia has welcomed good results, including the growth of the market for the treatment of toxic waste in South Africa, the Middle East or South Africa. Latin America. The group rented the construction of a PET plastic recycling plant for Danone in Indonesia, precisely. Several realities cohabit?

International groups like Veolia are interested in developing legal waste treatment channels in less industrialized countries. These are now their big emerging markets and these countries will produce more and more waste if they continue to increase their consumption and production. Develop recycling plants; but also incineration plants or controlled landfills according to Western techniques. And at the same time, our countries send waste into channels that are sometimes legal, sometimes quite questionable and managed by mafias, presumably. Indeed, I have the impression that two sectors cohabit, and probably the groups only communicate on the aspect "construction of local sectors" in these countries.

The association Zero Waste France is a partner of a global network, the Gaia, which published a report noticed in April on the situation. Why did this report hold so much attention ?

It documents something that we have trouble seeing from home. Waste, we know that we export for a long time, except that we do not necessarily visualize the very concrete impacts it causes. With local Gaia federations, this report highlights a number of practices of what happens to waste on site. In part, they are sorted in the open by small hands - sometimes presumably under the mafia cut, again. These little hands put aside what is still valuable and sometimes leave on the spot what it is not. It's wild dumps or it's burned in the open air. This is a very concrete impact of some of the waste that is being exported. Obviously, we do not have all the information yet. There are still gray areas concerning these exports. But little by little, the veil rises on the downstream of the circuit.

French media are beginning to write that waste that we thought recycled is not necessarily. It's a real slap!

Overall, people are pretty uninformed about what happens to their garbage. These are complex sectors, there is a real work of understanding to carry out. Often, it is thought that a sorted waste is a recycled waste, it is not the case. Some waste is recycled well, for example the PET bottle type soda. Other plastic resins are not recycled or very difficult, such as plastic films or colored trays for now. People think ingenuously and legitimately that if it is put in a sorting bin in France, it is recycled. In fact, this is potentially a refusal of sorting and presumably, it feeds waste exports to countries less concerned about quality, for lower-end uses that require more manpower. France processes the vast majority of its waste; we have many incineration plants, landfills, sorting centers in France. But a part goes abroad and that questions the users, the citizens.

Paper with a high moisture content, categories of non-recyclable or even completely toxic plastics ... Asia does not only return low value added waste; some are not recyclable. China was right to open the lid ?

It puts us in the face of our own inconsistencies and contradictions. But China, under cover of environmental policy, mainly has a recycling industry to move upmarket, with an increase in waste production, linked to the rising standard of living of the middle classes, who will consume more plastic things , in paper, etc. What we are witnessing is also a form of protection and development of Chinese industry , clearly. The waste recycling industry in France will have to deal with sorting refusals differently. However, it will penalize relatively little waste treatment. If it's burned, it does not change much in the life of an incinerator plant operator. Caricaturing, we could even say that it will do more work.

So far, when an American or European company exports a waste, it adds to the statistics put forward by the company. It is considered recycled ?

At the very least, it fits into the "valuation" statistics. Legally, this term differs a little, but it boosts the statistics, yes. The general public does not necessarily make the difference between recovery and recycling. There are two types of commercial relationships, basically. For example, high-value waste is exchanged between European countries. France sells metals to Germany for its industry, which does not pose a particular environmental problem, even if the industries that use them behind can be polluting, of course. That's balanced trade relations. And then there are exports to less industrialized countries. Often fairly mixed waste, "balls" relatively impure, it is necessary to sort again on the spot. Even for paper, we do not send, in general, high value-added materials.

The Gaia report is constructed in such a way as to shock consciences, through portraits made in these countries of Southeast Asia. Families live with this waste in the middle of this waste. Some local lives have been disrupted economically, socially, healthily, environmentally. Beyond the tragedy, can this crisis, as the Gaia writes, constitute an " opportunity " ?

There are always opportunities to draw. Unfortunately, they are not always drawn. Associations are in the forefront to remember that many of these wastes could be reduced at the source. We still talk packaging, overpack, consumer products not always useful. Today, the big dumb people on the subject, the people who benefit from a situation for which they are primarily responsible, are the upstream industries: they use these products, which then become waste after consumption. Whether it is the industry that makes these packaging, or the agrifood that uses it, or the supermarkets, all continue to benefit from this "purr" a bit scandalous we will say, while not yet enough pointed finger in their responsibilities, perhaps. Somewhere, the waste industry is just managing a problem that already exists.

What are the other recommendations of Zero Waste and Gaia ?

To treat the waste according to a principle of proximity, it is the regulation, that is to say at least on the national territory; talk about overpacking, bad packaging designs. We try to move the sectors, they are complicated power relationships. The idea would really be to get out of this crisis with strong measures to reduce the use of problematic materials like plastic. Today, some resins have alternatives in other resins or other reusable materials. And then there is the question of the environmental responsibility of the major groups, of the eco-participation. We defend these positions. Take the soda: why not return to the deposit on reused glass? What seems today anecdotal are real long-term solutions for tomorrow. We will not have this kind of problem if we go back to glass for drinks. Bottled water, coffee capsules: all waste should be reduced as much as possible.

What is your view today on the principle of recycling as a whole ?

Loop plastic bottles from used bottles, it does not work. Only a small part, roughly a quarter, of secondary material from recycling can be reintegrated. The rest is virgin plastic. We can also make polar or other objects, but it does not work to infinity. Same for textiles: very complicated to remake the textile with exclusively recycled textile, except to use only cotton put aside, which is expensive. Recycling paper, it does not work to infinity either. At present, there are still major economic, but especially technical, impasses. So, only rely on recycling and investments in this sector to solve the waste crisis will not work. Today, the term recycling is well connoted, and we believe we can continue. If we do not inject a little sobriety into the loop, we will not be able to make a transition to the circular economy.

Behind our relationship to recycling is the question of our relationship to productivism. But recycling must be supported ?

Of course. A material which today is recycled, one could rather say "decyclée", it escapes an incineration plant or a landfill. It's still important, it's better than nothing! On the other hand, one must know the limits of this logic. To give outlets for recycled plastics, it is necessary to produce objects: garden chairs, benches, sweaters, bumpers of cars, goods that can be reintegrated. To recycle paper, it is necessary to continue to produce flyers, all kinds of "flyers", of useless papers. An apple is recycled, composted, eaten forever, yes. But industrial materials, wood, textiles, plastic, no. They are often polluted. Some plastics, some compounds, in electronic waste, so that your vacuum cleaner does not catch fire for example, there are a number of compounds that disrupt recycling very strongly. As they say, their best waste is the one that does not exist.

You talk about compost, plastic that we know is in the EU's sights. You also talk about deposit, a principle discussed during a bill on the "circular economy", arrived on the table of the French Council of Ministers on July 10th. Is the legislation evolving sufficiently?

Sorting of organic waste by households dates from a 2015 law and will be made mandatory by 2023 by EU law. Local authorities must offer a sorting solution at source: a separate collection of more or a lot of composters, more suitable solution for campaigns. Real public policies are carried out, pioneering or exemplary communities are able to reduce by two or even three or more the amount of residual waste unsorted, incinerated or sent to landfill. The cards are already on the table for the most part, now we need action. Regulations are lacking to compel businesses, communities can not do it. The authorities must regain control over certain sectors. If anything needs to change in product design, you have to regulate. We will follow the parliamentary debate on the anti-waste law, then the adoption of the implementing decrees. We will see if this allows us to go further and recreate the balance of power to frame practices that are sometimes disastrous in the light of everyone's knowledge. Take the camembert packaging: there are three or four elements, wood, cardboard, staples, plastic. It's not recyclable at all, it probably will never be; which rules are fixed?

→ To (re) listen: Decryption. Southeast Asia no longer wants to be the trash of the world

→ To (re) read: China prohibits the import of new types of waste