Plastic China documentary still

‘Foreign rubbish’ caught up in China’s tsunami of recycling waste

Image credit: Plastic China production team

China’s clampdown on plastic waste imports, the so-called yanglaji, or ‘foreign rubbish’, threw the global recycling industry into a maelstrom. We look at the impact the ban had and discover how China is going to tackle its own plastic rubbish.

Anyone seeking to understand the enormity of the plastic waste problem faced by China should watch the award-winning documentary ‘Plastic China’.

The touching 2017 film is a fly-on the-wall account of two families who live in an artisanal waste-plastic recycling factory on the outskirts of Beijing. One family is that of the factory owner, the other a hard-drinking rural migrant. Directed by Jiuliang Wang, the story is told through the eyes of the waste-picker’s daughter, an 11-year-old desperate to go to school but made to stay at home and help her family, condemned to an existence amid piles of rancid foreign waste.

‘Plastic China’ won international praise at film festivals across the world and quickly went viral on the internet in China, before suddenly being taken offline.

Plastic waste is a sore point in China. Until last year, it was the world’s largest importer of other people’s non-biodegradable trash. In 2016, it imported about 87 per cent of the USA’s waste and 69 per cent of Japan’s, according to international consulting firm McKinsey. A 2018 study by Science Advances Journal says that since 1992 China has absorbed 45 per cent of the world’s plastic waste.

As China rushed towards industrial development following the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, it needed the plastic scrap to process and repurpose for manufacturing and construction, and also as a raw material providing virgin resin for the country’s own plastics industry. However, many plastics in modern-day packaging are not recyclable and the waste quickly became a source of environmental contamination.

When China’s economy shifted to higher-grade output and its petrochemicals industry developed excess capacity, the need for imported plastics was reduced.

“In countries that are in rapid economic development, waste-management infrastructure is sometimes one of the last items to be addressed,” says Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia and a leading expert on plastic ocean pollution. “Often engineers and society will address acute matters like clean drinking water and waste can get pushed to the side until later.”

Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China became one of the first countries in the world to ban plastic bags. Whether a cynical ploy to improve China’s international image or a genuine chance to make a global statement, the ban was part of a flow of legislation over the last two decades that has showed China’s increased environmental awareness.

“There has been a tremendous evolution of thinking in China,” says journalist and activist Isabelle Hilton, editor of the ‘China Dialogue’ podcast. “Back in 2006, the view was very much ‘develop first, clean up later; the environment is something rich countries can afford; poor countries can’t’. As China’s industrial revolution came to the closing phases, people [came to] understand the environmental cost was very high indeed.”

Case study

Hong Kong’s waste solutions

Hong Kong faced a waste problem long before China issued a ban on waste imports. Short on land and high on consumption, it solved the problem – like many other nations – by sending rubbish to China.

But the recent waste import ban by China and other Asian nations, which includes the former British colony, now under Chinese administration, is threatening to turn a problem into a crisis. Early figures on the impact of the new Chinese legislation show that industrial waste alone ending up in Hong Kong landfills rose by 20 per cent in 2018, even though waste exports to Hong Kong are prohibited.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department said the increase was partly due to a decline in demand for recyclable materials and stricter controls by importing countries.

Municipal solid waste charging to be introduced in Hong Kong in 2020 is expected to help ease the city’s plastic waste muddle.

In 2010, Beijing began to tackle plastic waste with a series of crackdowns on imports under its ‘Green Fence’ programme, which imposed temporary restrictions on the least pure and therefore less manageable plastic. At the same time, it ramped up inspections on the dockside and in the offices of importers to make sure they were complying.

The impact was not enough, so the country launched its ‘National Sword’ programme, which shut down the Chinese market for nearly all plastic waste imports.

In July 2018, Beijing made headlines and threw the global recycling industry into a maelstrom when it announced to the World Trade Organization that China would ban 24 types of solid waste, including nearly all the plastic and paper scrap the Chinese call yanglaji, or ‘foreign rubbish’.

Nearly every local authority in every town and city across Europe and the US relied on shipping municipal waste to China. President Xi Jinping, however, ignored their protests and began fully implementing the new policies in January 2018.

The impact has been unprecedented. According to China’s General Administration of Customs, in 2018 waste plastic shipments dropped by a staggering 99.1 per cent year-on-year. Chinese companies still imported about 50,000 tonnes of scrap plastic in 2018, keeping it one of the world’s top importers, but this is only a fraction of the approximately 570,000 tonnes it bought in 2017.

Although by banning plastic waste China was expected to set an example to other developing nations, the restrictions have meant that other countries, especially in Asia, initially saw a surge in plastic waste imports.

According to US website Resource Recycling, Thailand imported almost 545,000 tonnes of scrap plastic in 2018, more than triple the approximate 153,000 tonnes sent there in 2017.

“Some countries were seen as alternative destinations for plastics, but then decided to implement their own bans,” says Simon Ellin, chief executive of trade body The Recycling Association. “Others such as Vietnam and Malaysia have implemented their own strict import policies, which means the amount of material exported to those countries has dropped to a trickle. Indeed, Malaysia is planning for a complete ban in three years’ time.”

Environmentalists in Hong Kong welcomed the Chinese import restrictions on all but the most pure plastic waste imports.

“We should celebrate what’s happened,” Doug Woodring, founder of the US and Hong Kong-based Ocean Recovery Alliance, told Forbes Magazine last April. His organisation is a major campaigner to clear Hong Kong waters of plastic, which is now such a problem that micro-plastics have been found inside grey mullet fish, a popular local dish.

“It’s the shock that the world needed to onshore technologies and solutions. I call it the biggest land-based tsunami the world has ever seen. Most of the western municipalities have no idea what to do; all are getting hit with the plastics problem that they used to move offshore,” says Woodring.

The smelly “tsunami”, the biggest wake-up call to the mounting problem of plastic waste the world has seen, rippled out and hit foreign shores. One month after the China ban, the European Union announced a Europe-wide strategy on plastics recycling aiming to get rid of all plastic packaging in the European market by 2030.

China’s ‘National Sword’ left one export door open – it allowed recycled bales of waste plastic that contained less than 0.5 per cent of non-contaminated recyclable material, compared to previous allowances of 4 to 5 per cent.

Cities like San Francisco, California, where environmental standards and know-how are high, began to sort waste to meet the Chinese targets. Recology, the waste-recovery company that deals with the city’s rubbish, immediately hired more waste sorters and began to develop state-of-the-art optical sorting machines that separate recyclable plastic from other material.

China’s regulatory and statutory wall against turning the country into the world’s garbage dump did not stop its burgeoning indigenous plastic waste problem. In 2013, it became the world’s largest plastic-waste producer, and accounted for roughly a quarter of the 280 million tonnes generated globally in 2016.

As the population urbanised, the rise of online shopping and take-away food led to a dramatic spike in the amount of residential plastic and waste in China. The nation’s municipal solid waste totalled a staggering 200 million tonnes in 2016 and that is predicted by the World Bank to exceed 500 million tonnes a year by 2025. In 2017, Beijing alone created just over nine million tonnes of domestic waste, and the figure has been steadily rising. Around 40 per cent of this waste ends up in hundreds of official landfills and tens of thousands of illegal ones across China.

Since 2006, Beijing has been trying to shutdown the illegal waste dumps and landfills but, despite government efforts, an estimated 10 to 20 per cent of rubbish in China is still just dumped. Most alarming of all is that much of this waste seeps into the oceans causing plastic pollution in the sea.

China’s Yangtze River, which flows into the East China Sea near Shanghai, is the world’s third largest and also the world’s biggest plastic waste pipeline into the ocean. It flows through 19 Chinese provinces, and an estimated 400 to 500 million people live along its course.

The Yangtze also passes through rural areas, which are lagging far behind in plastic recycling, throwing 95 per cent of their waste into the environment, including the river itself.

Figures on the amount of plastic being deposited into the Yangtze vary wildly. According to Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, of the 2.75 million tonnes of plastic waste carried to the ocean by rivers each year, 1.5 million (55 per cent) flows out of the Yangtze. A study by Laurent Lebreton, author of many books and studies on marine plastic, found that the Yangtze River spewed into the ocean 333,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2017, three times as much as its nearest rival the Ganges in India and Bangladesh.

A team of researchers in the US and Australia, led by the University of Georgia’s Jenna Jambeck, analysed plastic waste levels in the world’s oceans and found China to be by far the biggest marine polluter since 2013, responsible for 27.7 per cent of the plastic contaminants that enter our oceans every year, with Indonesia a long way second,

Together, the two nations account for around 37 per cent of plastic debris making its way into the sea.

China’s biggest problem remains waste collection and management. Even today, the bulk of Chinese rubbish is dealt with by hundreds of thousands of waste pickers who sort through trash heaps – often with no protective gear – gathering plastic, metals and paper for resale to municipal facilities. Consulting firm McKinsey found that only 11 per cent of China’s plastic was recycled and that over 80 per cent of the ocean plastic was uncollected waste.

“Each type of waste needs its own plan. What it requires is for people to separate out the organic waste,” says Christine Loh, former undersecretary for the environment for Hong Kong and a prominent environmental campaigner. “It requires a whole supply and demand chain reaction. It’s all about sorting and that is what China is behind in.”

In 2017, the Chinese government ordered 46 cities to begin sorting their rubbish, with a 35 per cent recycling target by 2020 for smaller cities and 75 per cent for the larger ones. Last July, it also announced a programme for zero-waste pilot cities.

About a third of the 323 registered neighbourhoods in Beijing have started sorting domestic waste, and by 2020 it is hoped that this figure will have risen to 90 per cent.

“China is catching up fast in the way that it develops its own waste collection and recycling infrastructure,” says Ellin of the UK’s Recycling Association. “It still has a long way to go, but its recent announcement of zero-waste pilot cities will inform how it develops collection, sorting and recycling processes that suit its population.”

In the city of Lanzhou, local authorities have set up many permanent and mobile recycling stations. Local residents can call out staff from the stations to collect the rubbish from their door, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua. An online platform has been established where locals can post recycling messages. The popular messaging tool is also used to post recycling information.

Meanwhile, ‘smart’ dustbins have been placed in the city’s colleges and communities where people can dispose of rubbish and collect ‘credit points’. If they accumulate enough points, they can exchange them for goods.

The problem is that, whatever you do, around half of the plastic is not recyclable, and China is betting hard on waste-to-energy power plants to reduce the amount. There are currently at least 230 waste-to-energy incinerators in the country, with at least another one hundred planned including the largest one on the planet which is currently being built in Shenzhen with completion planned for next year.

Once finished, the Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant will stretch a mile across and burn 5,000 tonnes of waste a day, generating 165MW of electricity.

The project is a global effort: the architects are two Danish firms; Chinese companies are building the plant; the boiler is being made by Babcock & Wilcox Vølund, the Danish subsidiary of the US engineering giant.

But there have already been local protests against the pollution from the plant and its impact on the local environment. It is inevitable that toxins from the lowest grades of plastic will do some environmental damage in a country that already has some of the worst air pollution rates in the world.

Ellin says that while waste-to-energy programmes will have a part to play in helping China solve its plastic waste problem, it will require, like all other countries in the world, a circular economy, with incineration as the very last choice.

Case study

Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant

Shenzhen East Plant will use six Babcock & Wilcox Dynagrate combustion grates that resemble a set of ocean waves. As the individual sets of the grate move in opposite directions, the wave-like motion optimises the mixing and distribution of the waste on the bed ensuring even drying and smoother combustion. The motion of the grate keeps the air gaps clean and free from dust and other particulate contaminants.

Unlike lower-grade power stations, the plant will also be able to process waste containing metals, such as tin-can tops and silver foil, and still operate efficiently. There is no physical contact between the moving grates – reducing wear and tear on the blades. In addition, 40,000 square metres of solar panels on the plant’s roof will contribute to the power output.

To accommodate increases in heat values from the local waste, the six Shenzhen DynaGrate combustion grates have been engineered for water-cooling.

Shenzhen East will also contain a visitors’ centre and visitor walkways, fitting in with Beijing’s ‘Beautiful China’ programme to increase environmental awareness among the general population.

If China’s battle with plastic waste is to be won, the success of the flagship plant will depend on all the other elements of the Chinese recycling chain working like clockwork.

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