China, The Waste Crisis, and What it Means
By admin September 28, 2018

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On July 18th, 2017, China formally notified the World Trade Organization that it would be instituting an import ban on specific types of solid waste. The ban covers 24 different kinds of solid waste and includes unsorted paper and low-grade polyethylene terephthalate used in plastic bottles. The ban has also established limits of the levels of impurities in other recyclables.

Over half of all plastic waste intended for recycling is exported to other countries for disposal because countries do not have the domestic processing capacity to handle the volume of recyclable waste they produce. For recycling to work there has to be an end market for it, a company or program that takes the recycled goods and converts them into re-usable material or another good. If there isn’t a buyer who can turn the recyclable waste into something they can sell, it can’t be recycled.

Of all plastic waste exports, 45% of the total volume has been sent to China since 1992. In 2017, China imported 51% of all world-wide scrap plastic imports. On the whole China has imported more than 105 million metric tons of waste materials since 1992. This has created significant health and environmental threats to China. The import ban is part of a larger initiative to decrease the amount foreign garbage the country is taking in in order to protect the country’s environment and people.

This import ban went into effect January of 2018 and since then the recycling industry in the United States, the European Union, Canada, Germany, Japan, Korea and other major exporters of solid waste have been upheaved. These exporters are seeing plastic waste pile up at staggering rates. China’s import ban has created a break in the basic supply chain of plastic waste and recycling – there is no longer a buyer for the product. It is estimated that the ban will displace over 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030.

Why is this ban causing so much disruption? Many countries have strict recycling laws and companies that collect plastic waste are required to dispose of it properly, which is now no longer an option for these companies since there is more supply than demand for plastic waste. This makes plastic waste recycling extremely cost inefficient.

As a result, we are seeing high rates of plastic waste build up, facilities are reaching capacity. Companies in some states in the United States are beginning to receive waivers to dump recyclable waste with other garbage. It has been less than a year and we are already starting to see the end of the recycling industry. In worst case scenarios countries will completely stop recycling programs to prevent waste build up and save on costs. Best case scenario, other countries with capacity to import recyclable waste at the level needed will be identified and the break in the supply chain will be fixed. However, as China has seen, importing such high volumes of waste has serious detrimental effects on a country. This disproportionately affects low-income countries – countries currently being utilized to try to meet the demand for waste exports include Guatemala, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand.

On the positive side, because of this disruption to the plastic waste disposal market, we are seeing governments advocate for and adopt policies such as plastic bag bans in an effort to decrease their country’s consumption of plastics that will eventually just turn into waste.

How can individuals help the waste crisis? Reduce your consumption and help create cleaner waste. Currently 25% of all plastic waste is too contaminated to be recycled, meaning 1 out of every 4 plastic recyclables are not actually recyclable. Look up your local recycling policies and make sure you are recycling properly. The cleaner waste is the easier it is to sell.

Ultimately however, to effectively address the waste crisis countries must restructure and further develop domestic markets for recyclable materials.


Additional Readings:

China’s Waste Ban Is Causing A Trash Crisis In The U.S.

The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade

How do we solve the plastic catastrophe?

The battle against recycling contamination is everyone’s battle.

Thanks for sharing !

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