What China’s import ban on plastic waste means for the rest of the world
At the start of 2018, China acted on its import ban on 24 types of recyclable materials, including recycled plastics, as part of an environmental reform movement designed to deal with its own growing waste problems.
After 25 years of importing 106 million metric tons (or 45% of all plastic waste)China refused to buy any recycled plastic scrap that wasn’t 99.5% pure. This move upended a $200 billion global recycling industry and threw the rest of the world into turmoil.
Why did China stopped importing plastic waste?
Nearly 30 towns across China had been processing imported plastic waste, according to the 2016 documentary “Plastic China.” Garbage collectors and their families worked under stifling conditions, with various ill effects on their health and the environment.
“Plastic China” was banned in the country. But the rumor in the recycling industry is that Chinese President Xi Jinping saw the film and resolved to change the situation, as part of his grand plan to establish China as a global superpower.
Where will all the recyclable waste go now?
Wealthy nations sell their recycled plastic scrap (up to 81% in the case of America) to Asia for a simple fact: it’s more economical and easier to ship it around the world than to process it at home. In Asia, labor is cheap and environmental standards present a lower hurdle to mount.
In the 1990s, as China moved to become the world’s leading manufacturer, it began buying recycled plastics from the United States, Europe, Japan, and other nations. It developed the ability to process that material into goods, but much of that waste was low quality and added to China’s mounting health and environmental problems.
Imported plastic waste adds, on average, another 12% to the plastic waste China generates domestically every year. In 2016, that translated into 8.1 million additional tons on top of the 67 million tons of domestic trash created in China, increasing difficulties in managing its garbage.
China’s new policy could displace as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030, according to a study published in Science Advances. That is equivalent to 12,115 Eiffel towers weighing 9162 tonnes each.
With China’s door closed, some recyclable waste has found its way to smaller markets in Southeast Asia, in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. They have been trying to pick up the slack over the last six months, but were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume. In the first half of 2018, imports of plastic trash increased by 56% in Indonesia, doubled in Vietnam, and rose in Thailand by 1,370%, according to an analysis of trade data by the Financial Times. These nations do not have the capacity to deal with this waste influx and are already considering imposing restrictions of their own.
Another concern is that Asia is already home to five of the world’s top marine plastic polluters and sending more trash to countries that are ill-equipped to deal with it will simply exacerbate that problem.
With nowhere left to turn, certain recycling businesses have been stockpiling massive amounts of recyclable materials in hopes that the market will soon reboot. Bales of trash piled up in California, in the U.K., in Australia, and elsewhere, as exporting nations scoured the world for new buyers. Stockpiling has its own consequences: last year a holding facility in Australia caught fire and spewed noxious smoke over surrounding cities for eleven days.
Countries like the U.S. had until now been exporting much of its recyclable waste simply because it lacked the infrastructure, systems, and recycling culture to efficiently process it domestically. As exporting recyclable waste to China was cheap and hassle-free, efficient recycling systems in the U.S. were never seriously developed. In fact, there hasn’t been a new recycling plant built in the U.S. since 2003. Meanwhile, Americans throw away an average of 35 billion plastic bottles every year. Disposing of 1 ton of plastic bottles in mainland China cost around $200, but the expense can reach as high as $500 in developed economies — provided the proper facilities exist.
Recycling plastic has always been a challenge, due to the variety of additives and blends used to manufacture the multitude of products used on a daily basis. In most places, materials are recycled through what is known as “single-stream” recycling. The materials in the bin might include everything from cardboard and milk cartons to plastic bottles and soda cans, which all eventually end up at a materials recovery facility. Once there, the materials are transported down conveyor belts where lasers, magnets, and scales detect the different types of materials so they can be sorted into holding bins.
The problem with single stream recycling is waste contamination. Items that are commonly thrown in the recycling bin by consumers, such as styrofoam, greasy pizza boxes, of half-full beer cans, cannot always be processed at such facilities. When a load is filled with non-recyclable pieces or soaked in liquid, throwing out the whole load is cheaper than the cost of decontamination.
Only 9% of the plastic produced globally is recycled. The remainder ends up in landfills, incinerators, or floating free and polluting the environment.
“The recycling system in the United States especially has been challenging, and in general, less economically viable for some time,” says Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor and National Geographic Explorer, also co-author of the above-mentioned study. “It will take time to develop and expand domestic systems and markets, and to change product design.”
A wakeup call
China’s action may force the world to come up with bold global ideas and actions to more realistically dispose of a material that has accumulated more waste than any other material.
This could spur much-needed investment in domestic recycling facilities as well as innovation in plastic manufacturing to make products more suited for repurposing. It could also invigorate the vociferous public campaign to change our throwaway culture, bringing attention to the need for a more sustainable circular economy, where resources like plastics will be kept in use for as long as possible.
Redesign of plastic products that takes into account what happens to those products at the end of their life cycles will also go a long way toward improving recycling. The modernization of existing recycling plants would allow the recycling of more varieties of materials and at much faster rates. The construction of new processing sites is also necessary in order to handle the growing amount of recyclable waste the country produces.
Major retailers around the world, such as Iceland Foods, a British supermarket chain, are committing to eliminate the use of plastic packaging completely. Iceland supermarkets has become the first major retailer to commit to eliminate plastic packaging for all own brand products by the end of 2023 to help end the “scourge” of plastic pollution. The retailer said it would be replacing plastic with packaging including paper and pulp trays and paper bags which would be recyclable through domestic waste collections or in-store recycling facilities.
In addition, governments can drive the multitude of interdependent solutions by improving infrastructure and waste management while also encouraging investment in upstream solutions like improved recycling technology, alternative bio-benign materials, and development of product and systems designs that generate less waste.
For instance, the European Commission’s Plastics Strategy, which was unveiled in January 2018, says that by 2030, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable, while the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted.
With ambitious goals and timelines for future recycling growth, challenges are aplenty while changes take time. The bottom line is that solutions going forward need to incorporate all stakeholders, citizens, governments and industry, both locally and internationally.