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January 20th, 2016:

Plastic to outweigh fish in oceans by 2050, study warns

At least 8 million tons of plastics find their way into the ocean every year – equal to one truckload every minute

Plastic trash will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050 unless the world takes drastic action to recycle the materials, a report warned Tuesday on the opening day of the annual gathering of the rich and powerful in the snow-clad Swiss ski resort of Davos.

An overwhelming 95 percent of plastic packaging, worth $80 billion to $120 billion a year, is lost to the economy after a single use, according to a global study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes recycling.

The study, which drew on multiple sources, proposed setting up a new system to slash the leaking of plastics into nature, especially the oceans, and to find alternatives to crude oil and natural gas as the raw material of plastic production.

At least 8 million tons of plastics find their way into the ocean every year — equal to one garbage truckload every minute, said the report, which included analysis by the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment.

“If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050,” it said, with packaging estimated to account for the largest share of the pollution.

Available research estimates that there are more than 150 million tons of plastics in the ocean today.

“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish,” it said.

“This report demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy,” said Dominic Waughray of the World Economic Forum, which jointly released the report and is the host of the annual talks in Davos.

“To move from insight to large-scale action, it is clear that no one actor can work on this alone. The public [and] private sector and civil society all need to mobilize to capture the opportunity of the new circular plastics economy,” he said.

A sweeping change in the use of plastic packaging would require cooperation worldwide among consumer goods companies, plastic packaging producers, businesses involved in collection, cities, policymakers and other organizations, said the report. It proposed creating an independent coordinating body for the initiative.

“Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy, with unbeaten properties. However, they are also the ultimate single-use material,” said Martin Stuchtey of the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. “Growing volumes of end-of-use plastics are generating costs and destroying value to the industry.”

Reusable plastics could become a valuable commodity in a “circular economy” that relied on recycling, Stuchtey said. “Our research confirms that applying those circular principles could spark a major wave of innovation, with benefits for the entire supply chain.”

Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse

The new generation of Buenos Aires trash pickers reenergizing recycling in the capital

The cartoneros of Buenos Aires are finally cashing in on the city’s newfound love of recycling. But the Argentinian capital still has a long way to go

Cecilia works a five-block strip along Calle Paraguay in Palermo, a hip district in downtown Buenos Aires. Opening a flap door at the bottom of a lime-green bin the size of an industrial fridge, her gloved hands reach in to fish out the contents inside. Plastic bottles, discarded cardboard, newspapers, a discarded cheque book and a set of bookends: all the items disappear into a large, heavy plastic sack that she ties up and leaves by the roadside.

“After we’ve finished, a truck from the cooperative comes and picks up the sacks and takes them back to the plant for sorting,” says the 34-year-old, who has been in the job for three years after a long stint of unemployment.

Dressed in a uniform of grey T-shirt and dark slacks with a reflective ribbon, she’s one of an emerging number of urban litter pickers being drawn into the formal labor system in the Argentine capital over recent years.

Under the city government’s Ciudad Verde (Green City) plan, over 5,000 people now collect a base salary from the state for emptying the bell-shaped recycling bins that began appearing on the street about 18 months ago. The plan is an attempt to ease a landfill crisis that reached its peak in 2012, when provinces around Buenos Aires began rejecting the city’s trash.

“People are recycling a lot more now, although we still find all sorts of stuff in the bins. I had a friend who found a tablet computer once. But, at the same time, some folks chuck in food and diapers too,” says Cecilia.

As she’s speaking, the janitor from a nearby apartment building hands her a bag of recyclable trash. “They know our routine, so they put the recycling aside for us most days now,” she says.

From litter pickers to recyclers

The transformation is remarkable. A decade ago, downtown Buenos Aires teemed with thousands of litter pickers (known locally as cartoneros), their numbers swelled by Argentina’s catastrophic economic collapse at the end of 2001.

Men, women and children would flock in from the poor suburbs of this city of some 13 million people, rifling through the garbage on street corners and doorsteps, before heading back to the suburbs with carts loaded with recyclables to sell to dealers at rock-bottom prices. The Tren Blanco, a former passenger train used by the waste pickers, became emblematic of the country’s straightened circumstances.

One of the principal protagonists in the fight to improve the rights of the city’scartoneros is Sergio Sánchez, president of the Argentine Federation of Litter Pickers and Recyclers, which represents the dozen or so recycling cooperatives that operate in central Buenos Aires. The federation is linked to the left wing Movement of Excluded Workers.“The first big change came in 2002 when Buenos Aires withdrew a long-standing law that made litter picking illegal,” says Santiago Sorroche, an anthropologist at the University of Buenos Aires. “The second came with the Zero Garbage law [in 2005], which aims to gradually reduce the solid waste going to landfill.”

A political mover and shaker, Sánchez is known as the “cartonero friend of the Pope”. Above his desk hangs a recent photograph of him in Rome with the Argentine-born pontiff, shortly after the latter baptized Sánchez’s infant son.

As part of a deal that Sánchez helped strike with the city government, registered litter pickers like Cecilia now collect a set salary of 5,200 pesos ($383) per month to empty the downtown recycling bins once a day. With the arrangement comes a minimal social security package and a small pension.

“The big difference today is that we’re treated as workers providing a public service for the city,” says Sánchez. “Before, people would look down on us and say we created a mess, plus the police would always hassle us.”

The entrenched prejudice towards litter pickers is well illustrated by a Buenos Aires judge, who once threw out a damages case brought by a cartonero who had been hit by a car. Worse, the judge proceeded to penalize the victim for breaking the city’s transport norms. He stood charged with pulling his cart on the road without lights.

Growing pains

Recent efforts to formalize their trade is broadly welcomed by cartoneros, but it remains far from perfect. For one, the new lime-green recycling bins are predominantly limited to the city’s richer neighborhoods. Even then, they are far outnumbered by similarly-sized bins for non-recyclable trash.

Residents’ attitudes are changing far too slowly as well. Although most of the recycling cooperatives run educational outreach initiatives, awareness of why and how to recycle remains minimal. “If the non-recycled garbage bins are full, people will just chuck their trash in the recycle bins,” says Sánchez.

The other main shortfall is state support. By attempting to recognize the litter pickers, the city government is essentially recognizing that the cartoneros are providing a public service. Yet the recycling cooperatives say they only receive a fraction of the funds provided to private operators contracted to manage the city’s domestic and commercial waste.

Cristina Lescano, head of the El Ceibo Cooperative to which Cecilia belongs, cites the example of the government’s new plastics recycling plant, which it inaugurated in December and whose management is outsourced to a private contractor. “We have to send our plastic to them, and then they send it back to us to sell as high quality pellets. Why don’t they just give us the machinery to do it ourselves?”

By the same token, Lescano argues that the city government should pay the recycling cooperatives a market rate for their work rather than the current subsidy. El Ceibo, which has 345 members and operates a sorting plant immediately behind a smart downtown shopping centre, has only 10 collection trucks. “With 10 more we could double the recyclable material we collect, but the government would prefer to invest in private companies – not a social business like ours,” she says.

Environmental activist group Greenpeace also argues that investment in recycling infrastructure remains woefully inadequate. It took seven years after the Zero Garbage law was passed for recycling bins to begin appearing in the city, according to campaign director Soledad Sede, and the government is reluctant to invest any more money.

Few hold out hope that Argentina’s new pro-business president Mauricio Macri, until recently mayor of Buenos Aires City, will push to extend the employment of litter pickers beyond the swanky downtown districts. Even if he wished to, responsibility for waste management is devolved to municipal governments, where public funding is tighter and litter picking less lucrative.

The biggest losers

Without doubt, those outside the formalization process occupy are in the worst shape. At a conservative estimate, cartonero groups calculate that at least 15,000 people in Buenos Aires depend on litter picking for their livelihood. Only about one third of those collect a subsidy, of whom only around half receive the full 5,200 pesos ($284). The other half receive 2,700 pesos ($199) per month. To make up the shortfall, they sell their pickings privately rather than have it collected by a cooperative.

In La Cárcova, a slum in the San Martín municipality of Greater Buenos Aires, the impact of the recent changes is being felt. Bordering one of the city’s main dumps, La Cárcova is home to generations of litter pickers. According to the slum’s residents, however, collection rates have dropped considerably for those outside the formal system. Not only do registered collectors have first dibs on the recycling bins, but the new street bins for unsorted garbage are often sealed.

“There’s less for us to recycle now because Macri and his coops have it all wrapped up,” says 35-year-old La Cárcova resident Silvina, a single mother of four. “The rubbish trucks pass all the time so there’s less and less for us to take.

Her neighbour Emilze, also a mother of four, is one of the lucky ones. She recently got a job at the privately-run recycling plant at the city dump, where she gets paid 200 pesos ($14.75) per day. Her mother, aged 62, who has worked as a litter picker all her life, now receives the 2,700-peso subsidy ($199) and is bused into the centre of the city every day in government-funded transport.

Asked if any of her children will become cartoneros, she shakes her head. They are all going to complete school, she insists. It’s true that for those in the system, litter picking is better than it was, she says.

“But at the end of the day, it’s still a dirty job.”

Hong Kong green activist given court go-ahead to challenge dumping of waste at Lantau wetland site

On a cold , damp day in a tucked away corner of south Lantau, buffalo stroll casually onto an expansive grassy wetland for a morning graze.

It makes for a tranquil, pastoral sight, apart from the metre-high mounds of rubble and construction waste piled up on several plots of land there. The eyesore at Pui O has irked local residents and villagers for years. Many also fear the buffalo could disappear as the greenery vanishes.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise for them on Wednesday when the High Court gave the go-ahead for a judicial challenge against the environmental authorities for allowing such dumping on the wetlands, which are on land zoned for coastal protection but with an awkward patchwork of private, corporate and government ownership.

Mui Wo resident Christian Masset, a former chairman of green group Clear the Air, has been given permission to challenge the director of environmental protection’s decisions to allow construction waste to be dumped at four sites near the wetlands between 2014 and this year.

The sites are on the fringe of the wetlands between Ham Tim San Tsuen and Pui O beach, the court heard yesterday.

A visit to the site yesterday revealed that the marsh was still pockmarked with rubble. A mysterious rust-covered, half-built structure lay abandoned in one corner. One conservationist said these were “destroy first, build later” tactics.

“Landowners know officials can’t do much as the land is private and the likelihood of zoning getting changed is higher when the land is degraded,” said Save Lantau Alliance convenor Eric Kwok Ping. “When the opportunity for development comes, they say, ‘what wetland?’”

The Environmental Protection Department declined to comment on the case as the judicial process was under way, but stressed it did not accept any “destroy first, build later” behaviour.

The hearing on Wednesday centred on what Mr Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung called a “vacuum”.

Barrister Jonathan Chang, for the director, argued that the environmental protection chief, once he was approached by a property owner, would acknowledge the request and give permission, but environmental considerations would not be taken into account.

Chang also argued that the Waste Disposal Ordinance suggested the need for a licensing system, but the relevant provision had not yet been put in effect.

The court refused to grant interim relief to Masset, who sought a halt to dumping until the judicial review was completed.

However, Au said Masset, represented by barrister Robin McLeish, was able to demonstrate the environmental risks involved and the sense of urgency in the case. The review is expected to start after both sides file related documents to the court.
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Zero Waste: A Short History and Program Description

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