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China’s Ban on Plastic Waste Imports Is a Wake-Up Call

Recycling is not enough: We need bold solutions to deal with our plastic overproduction problem

Remember that plastic milk jug you emptied out last month? And that yogurt container you threw in your recycling bin last week? Chances are, they are now sitting in one of the growing mounds of plastic piling up in collection centers across the country with nowhere to go.

photo of plastic balesPhoto by recycleharmony, Flickr China effectively banned plastic waste imports on January 1, leaving the US recycling industry in the lurch.

As of January 1, China effectively banned imports of plastic recyclables from other countries. The change represents a major policy shift: In 2016, China took 51 percent of the 15 million tons of plastic recyclables in trade globally, including a whopping 40 percent of US citizens’ plastic recycling. So when China announced that it was shutting its doors to our plastic, it was a wake up call for the US recycling industry. 

"Corporate recycling is in for a reality check as China raises its standards,” says Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, a leading zero waste non-profit and recycling center in Berkeley, CA. “Everyone is desperately looking for the cheapest possible new destinations for low quality mixed materials, and there is currently a lot of incentive for companies to dump, burn, or bury recyclables that customers think are getting recycled.”

Due to trade imbalances amongst other factors, it’s been much cheaper for many states to ship plastic abroad than deal with it stateside. Giant barges arrive at ports around the country with products manufactured in China, and we have been reloading those barges with plastic waste generated from cheap, single-use products and packaging, and sending it right back to China and other parts of Asia.

The “recyclable” plastic the US sends abroad are often low-quality and low-value. Some contain a cocktail of toxic additives that threaten recycling workers’ health. (Recyclables that are higher value, namely HDPE and PET [#1 and #2], are more often recycled domestically.) The bales of plastic recyclables we were sending to China were also often contaminated with non-recyclable materials, which recycling operations were then forced to dispose of, either through landfilling or burning. (Indeed, the effective ban was in fact a drastic tightening of “impurity standards” for recyclables imports, one that US facilities cannot meet. China has also announced that it plans to completely ban plastic waste imports in 2019)

In some importing countries, collection and processing of low-grade plastics for recycling is carried out largely by the informal sector (often called wastepickers and recyclers). Such workers often face no labor or environmental protections, and usually only have access to poor quality equipment. Nations like the US and countries in the EU often count recyclables exports as part of their recycling rates, with little understanding of or accountability for the environmental and human health implications of these exports.

China’s ban could prove to be a “tipping point” for the global plastic recycling market, either for the better or for worse. So how will nations like the US adapt?

Countries that have typically exported their recyclables are planning on beefing up regional and domestic recycling infrastructure. But zero waste experts worry that plastic pile-ups could trigger more domestic incineration of recyclables. Burning plastic in incinerators or so-called “waste to energy” facilities causes harmful emissions including persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and greenhouse gases. And though “waste to energy” facilities are often called “renewable” by proponents, they raise serious climate concerns: Plastic-based operations involve burning a material derived from fossil fuels, using fossil fuels in the process, and releasing CO2 emissions as a result. These operations can hardly be counted as renewable.

Another possible outcome is that the US and other exporting nations will try to find new dumping grounds in South and Southeast Asia. This would have catastrophic consequences for these countries, which are not equipped to take on a tsunami of foreign plastic, and could also result in more plastic leakage into the ocean.

Neither of these tactics. address the elephant in the room — that global plastic production is out of control. In the US alone the petrochemicals industry has invested $164 billion in infrastructure expansions to make more plastic. That means production capacity could increase by a third in as little as five years. According to current projections, by 2050 the total volume of plastic ever produced will reach 34,000 million tons — over 4 times what has been produced so far. If that happens, plastic production will make up 15 percent of the global carbon budget. And to make matters worse, only 9 percent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled.

While recycling is an attractive idea, in reality it cannot come close to absorbing the existing and ever-increasing supply of plastic in the marketplace. With industry planning to quadruple the amount of plastic on the planet by 2050, even with the best possible global recycling rate the amount of plastic polluting the environment would still double. The shortcomings of plastic recycling are both technical and economical. Due to a glut of cheap oil and natural gas, new plastic is less expensive than its recycled version. And there are no wide-spread policy measures yet in place requiring a certain percentage of recycled content in plastic products. To add insult to injury, recyclers have to deal with a dizzying array of colors and toxic additives that make these plastics difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. Not to mention that single-use packaging is increasingly being produced in lightweight designs that render plastics non-recyclable, bound to end up in landfills, bodies of water, or toxic incinerators.

What’s the solution? We simply need to make less plastic. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives(GAIA) along our partners in Asia- Pacific and Europe came together in this uncertain time to release the short report, Recycling is Not Enough. In it we lay out two stark realities. Under the first, a “business as usual” scenario, companies continue to make staggering amounts of plastic and wealthy nations export their pollution to other countries. Under the second, we present a bold vision for the future, one in which production is greatly reduced, corporations are held accountable for the plastic pollution they create, and recycling is handled closer to where the plastic was used and performed with the highest social and environmental standards.

There are many avenues to achieve this goal. Already, some city governments, policy leaders, businesses, and citizens are finding solutions to plastic overproduction, evidenced by recent bans and fees on plastic bags and styrofoam; the rise of reusable bottles and other items; and innovative redesign of products and packaging. An informed public is demanding a shift in our economy towards greener alternatives, putting pressure on companies to use more recycled content in their packaging, and to find better delivery systems for their products so that consumers aren’t forced to buy plastic packaged goods that are harmful to people and planet.

Recycling is seen as a hallmark of modern environmentalism, and a way for everyone to do their part. Unfortunately, while recycling is a necessary part of a transition zero waste future, we cannot rely on it to bail us out of the extractive economic system that led to our plastic problem. China’s ban gives us the opportunity to rethink the way we make, take, and waste, and to move towards a future where the materials on our finite planet are preserved and respected.

Claire Arkin
Claire Arkin is GAIA's Campaign and Communications Associate in Berkeley, with a focus on plastic pollution.

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Great article Claire. Sadly, the SE Asia rush is already happening. Also, a point you mentioned that is really frustrating is the investment of the petro-chemical companies in bringing more plastic producing capacity online, not just in the US, but China as well. They (Dow, Dupont,) publicly tout their commitment to “less plastics” by joining groups such as the Ellen MacArthur Funds Rethinking Plastics Initiative and sponsor sustainability related conferences, all the while investing in exactly the OPPOSITE on what they tout.  There needs to be more accountability from consumers about corporations being two faced, as well as corporations being basically allowed to “greenwash” themselves by aligning with global NGO’s.  As someone that used to work in CSR, I would always think about how much I was really contributing to actual impact versus doing mkting! Would love to learn more about the work of GAIA!

By Gina on Sun, February 18, 2018 at 11:09 am

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