iswa, waste management, circular economy, marine litter, China Ban, Antonis Mavropoulos, ISWA2018, Kuala Lumpur, Sustainability, Pollution, UNEP, recycling, plastics, plastic pollution, plastic marine debris

This is a part of my lecture during the opening ceremony of ISWA’s Annual Congress in Kuala Lumpur (22/10/2018). It refers to China Ban and Marine Litter and it highlights their common characteristics, while it ends with a call for urgent action for tackling the waste management challenge in the developing world.

“We at ISWA made it clear, from 2012, that the over-dependence on China’s market for plastic recyclables was too risky for businesses, misleading for policy makers and not sustainable.

China’s  Ban is a historical event that already creates global environmental and financial impacts. As several other neighbouring countries, like Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia followed, the western recycling industry is obliged to phase the end of recycling as we know it.

We should only thanks the Chinese Delegation, one of the biggest in this conference, for accelerating the collapse of a virtual reality about recycling.

Either we will deliver systematically the required investments and business models towards circular economy, or we will watch the systematic transformation of our oceans to wastelands

We all recognize now that China was a convenient answer to a very inconvenient question: how we will deal with the low quality recyclables without affecting the dominant business models. Now, it’s time to recognize that quality recycling is the key. It’s time to rethink carefully what, how and why we recycle.

It’s time to consider that the long-term resilience and the local adaptation of recycling programs should be considered of at least equal , if not higher, importance to the diversion rates achieved. We should carefully study the very interesting on-going adaptation efforts made, mainly in the USA market and I encourage you to talk about it with SWANA members and the American participants, which form also one of the biggest delegation of our congress.

But above any other issue, China’s Ban highlights the limits and the restrictions of recycling, it urges us to move faster beyond recycling towards to Circular Economy models about plastics, and not only.

But of course, we are here to discuss about Marine Litter. In 2018, we realized that the problem is much bigger than we considered. We discovered plastics in commercial salts, plastics in fishes and sea turtles, plastics in the remotest part of the world in Marianna Trench , and finally plastics in plankton and a huge part of the oceanic food chain.

But what is the global response? Bans on single use plastics and clean-ups can serve only as starting points. Machines that remove marine litter from the surface are useful but their contribution is mostly symbolic. We say it clearly, we need much more than symbolic or fancy movements to resolve the problem. Trying to respond only with cleanups and sophisticated equipment that removes the floating marine litter is misleading because it does not address the root of the problem.

Marine Litter is the direct result of political inaction, it’s the price we pay for allowing dumpsites to dominate the developing world

It is now well documented, and ISWA contributed a lot, that Marine Litter is directly linked with the absence of proper waste collection, recycling and disposal infrastructure in the developing world.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to say it clearly: Marine Litter is the direct result of political inaction, it’s the price we pay for allowing dumpsites to dominate the developing world, it’s the cost for ignoring or downgrading the importance of waste management in the global development agenda.

We need to shut the tap of plastics off and the only way is to have urgently a new wave of investments towards circular economy and better waste management in the developing world. This is the only way to prevent marine litter and ensure that it will not become a dangerous planetary challenge like climate change.

Allow me to close by highlighting that China’s Ban on recyclables and the challenge of Marine Litter have three common characteristics.

They are both about plastics waste streams.

They both demonstrate the global environmental impacts of improper waste management practices.

They both highlight the end of the dominant business models in recycling and the plastic industry.

We urgently need new business models, we need innovation and rapid adaptation to the new reality – the on-going fourth industrial revolution can catalyse rapid and radical innovations. But this will not be enough, because Artificial Intelligence is not yet capable to manage common sense problems.

And this is common sense: we need to finish with the “business as usual”, “too small and too late” responses. This is a red alarm that can’t be ignored. Marine Litter has no borders,  its impacts will be severe and without any preference between the poor and rich. Either we will deliver systematically the required investments and business models towards circular economy, or we will watch the systematic transformation of our oceans to wastelands.

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©2018 Wasteless Future Antonis Mavropoulos

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