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Comment: the world of recycling

In the early twentieth century, the United States replaced Great Britain as the world's great economic power. Until now and throughout the Cold War, the United States has remained the driver of the world economy.

At present, it retains this role. But as we report this week in MRW , this power is under threat from China.

In the five basic food, energy and industrial commodities, China is using more of these resources in four categories than the US, according to a report from the Earth Policy Institute. This means that it is consuming more steel, coal, grain and meat than the US, with only oil being used less.

Indeed, China's rapid industrial expansion means that it is using twice as much steel as the United States. In 2003, China used 258 million tonnes of steel compared to 104 million tonnes in the US. It is also well ahead in consumption of other metals including aluminium and copper. It is also sucking in paper, lumber and cotton.
According to the Earth Policy Institute, this means that commodity prices and ocean shipping rates are now being heavily influenced by China.

While Chinese foreign policy and security planning are being influenced by its new strategic relationships with resource-rich countries such as Brazil, Kazakhstan, Russia, Indonesia and Australia for products including oil, natural gas, iron ore, bauxite and timber.

This will come as no surprise to both the recycling industry and environmentalists.

However, it also raises again the debate covered many times in MRW over whether it is ethical to export waste products to China. On one hand, many environmentalists argue that waste produced in the UK should follow the proximity principle and be dealt with here. But many in the recycling industry say that ships bringing Chinese goods (and packaging) will return empty, other than worthless ballast, which is in turn environmentally damaging.

The reality is that China is now an economic giant. China will continue to take resources and send back products to the European Union and Britain. It is only right, that the British recycling industry should be able to take advantage of the opportunities that China offers.
As MRW points out in this week's news analysis, the paper industry is saturated in this country and needs to export its excess materials to ensure that it does not get landfilled here. China is one of the countries in need of this resource.

It is now too late to return to only local communities trading with each other, although local trade and the proximity principle should still be rightly encouraged where it should happen - do we really need to buy New Zealand apples during the British apple season? But the argument for environmentalists, should now be to encourage the mechanisms of global trade, such as transport and production, to become more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

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