Plastic bottles processing

Developed nations struggling with plastic waste overload after China’s import ban

Image credit: Ecoalf

China’s recent ban on non-industrial plastic waste imports will force developed countries to create more domestic facilities and cut down on the amount they produce, according to a new study.

Since reporting began in 1992, China has accepted about 106 million tonnes of plastic waste, which accounts for nearly half of the world’s imports.

China and Hong Kong have imported more than 72 per cent of all plastic waste, but most of the waste that enters Hong Kong – about 63 per cent – is exported to China.

But in 2017, China passed the ‘National Sword’ policy, which permanently bans the import of non-industrial plastic waste as of January 2018.

Now, scientists from the University of Georgia have calculated the potential global impact of this legislation and how it might affect efforts to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the world’s landfills and natural environment.

The scientists sought to quantify the impact of the Chinese import ban on the worldwide trade in plastic waste, and found that other nations might need to find a home for more than 110 million tonnes of plastic by 2030.

“We know from our previous studies that only nine per cent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, and the majority of it ends up in landfills or the natural environment,” said associate professor Jenna Jambeck who co-authored the study.

“About 111 million tonnes of plastic waste is going to be displaced because of the import ban through 2030, so we’re going to have to develop more robust recycling programmes domestically and rethink the use and design of plastic products if we want to deal with this waste responsibly.”

Wealthy countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany have long sent their plastic recyclables to China, and the country does not want to be the world’s dumping ground for plastic any more.

This is partly due to the poor quality of the waste in recent years which, if contaminated enough, will need to be incinerated rather than recycled into more plastic which can then be sold on.

China’s domestic plastic waste has also increased in recent years with its rising middle class.

Historically exporting waste to China was relatively cheap, compared to setting up new facilities in the UK for example.

China’s lopsided export market with the West meant that large cargo ships would arrive with goods but would have little to take back to their home country on the return journey. The ships are designed to hold a certain amount of ballast to ensure smooth sailing and plastic waste is in abundant supply.

The change is forcing countries to rethink how they deal with the problem and they will need to be more selective about what they choose to recycle, and more fastidious about reusing plastics, said Amy Brooks, first author on the study.

In the meantime, Brooks said, more plastic waste is likely to get incinerated or sent to landfills.

“This is a wake-up call. Historically, we’ve been depending on China to take in this recycled waste and now they are saying no,” she said.

“That waste has to be managed, and we have to manage it properly.”

The ban is part of a larger crackdown on foreign refuse, which is viewed as a threat to health and environment.

The vast amount of plastic waste entering the oceans is causing significant disruption to marine life but a number of research and government initiatives have been launched in recent years to try and tackle the problem. 

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