Recycling’s Uncertain Future: China’s Ban On Waste Imports
China has long been treated as our planet’s repository for plastic waste. The nation has accepted 45% of the world’s total plastic recycling since reporting to the United Nations Comtrade Database began in 1992.
China passed their “National Sword” policy banning plastic waste from being imported beginning in January 2018, signaling to the rest of the world that their plastic practices had to change.
Now that China won’t take it, what’s happening to the leftover waste? Some of it is ending up in landfills, being incinerated, or getting sent to other countries that lack the infrastructure to properly manage it (in either case, not a sustainable long-term solution, and not good for the planet, either). By 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced because of China’s new law, equal to nearly half of all plastic waste that has been imported globally since 1988.
This of course is not the fault of a country deciding, for the health of its environment and its people, to ban plastic waste imports. In fact, we’re all to blame: rapid expansion of disposable plastics and single-use containers grew the yearly global imports by a whopping 723%. No country could be expected to take on such a massive amount of waste.
How did exporting plastic waste begin in the first place? The simple answer: cost. For developed nations like the United States, it can be more economical to push plastics out of the country rather than recycling them. Other nations can buy and recycle these plastics, ultimately manufacturing more goods for sale or export, making it profitable for them as well.
China came to dominate the global recycling trade in much the same way it has come to dominate other areas of trade. It has an insatiable appetite for resources, including second-hand ones, to feed its booming economy.
According to The Economist, China was aided by the nature of its existing trade flows. Bulky scrap shipments to Chinese ports were only affordable thanks to “backhauling”—the process by which container vessels crossed the Pacific laden with Chinese products for North American markets, then ferried scrap for the return trip at rock-bottom prices rather than return the ships empty. Around half of all westbound trans-Pacific container traffic was plastic and packaging for recycling.
But after decades of this practice, inexpensive but detrimental to the environment and human health, the export mindset had to change.
Not only did plastic and paper waste need an overhaul—China later changed its standards for other items as well. For products such as cardboard and metal, China set a contamination level of 0.5%—an extremely low threshold that required U.S. and other recyclers to change technology and sorting techniques to meet the new standards.
After banning 24 varieties of solid waste in 2017, effective January 2018, China extended the ban to 32 more types of recyclable materials, including steel waste, used auto parts and even old ships. These changes will take effect by the end of 2019.
These bans, of course, have consequences elsewhere in the world: A town in Australia has been sending recyclable waste to a landfill because it can no longer afford to recycle it. In the United Kingdom, low-grade plastic is now slated for incineration. The U.S. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries even warned the ban is disruptive to global supply chains and could lead manufacturers to use new materials rather than recycled ones—essentially counterintuitive to the goal of a healthier environment in the first place.
But the ban is also a wake-up call, causing countries like the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Japan and others who relied on China to buy and handle their trash from them to interrogate those processes. Several countries are now considering imposing taxes on some plastic items in effort to incentivize cutting down on their use.
If the U.S. can no longer ship poor-quality recycling materials to China, our recycling industry needs to start changing. First up: Quality standards. China, as well as and other countries, will still buy high-quality scrap material that can be recycled into new items, which incentivizes creating high-quality materials in the first place—such as the products you can find from Pregis and our partners, all of whom are committed to sustainability.
By slowing down the recycling process, better-quality materials can be produced. Companies are adopting higher standards and much more stringent processes, as well as investing more in technology.
It’s also spurred innovation and new companies to manage these processes, like Scrapo, an online marketplace that matches buyers and sellers of second-hand polymers in different countries. Since its inauguration in November 2017, suppliers have posted offers to sell 1.5 million tons of recovered plastic on Scrapo. It now has more than 10,000 users, 70% outside America. Just 6% are from traditional plastic-waste importers like China, Indonesia or Vietnam.
Similarly, other parts of the trade are also moving online. Scrap Monster, a platform for trading recovered metal, has 50,000 registered users. MerQbiz is a digital platform to streamline the reused-paper market, a $30 billion-dollar industry. Materials Marketplace allows American manufacturers to exchange factory by-products and leftovers more easily, and state-level versions exist in Ohio and Tennessee. The company now has offshoots in Turkey and Vietnam.
These initiatives aim to wring the most out of available resources, and doing so has exposed the shortcomings of the recycling industry.
“Recycling programs will face challenges unless the cities begin to envision a more durable business model,” Richard Coupland, vice president of municipal sales at Republic Services, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
“The key is we’ve got to get the word out,” Coupland said in the interview. “Everybody’s got a role, everybody has to get involved. If we can all get better at what we throw away, that will help us tremendously on the back end.”
So, how can you help? You’ve already taken the first step by reading this blog and using Pregis products. As a leading manufacturer and provider of innovative packaging and protective products, we’re taking the steps to make our products and services as sustainably sourced as possible.
We aim to innovate so we can improve packaging’s impact on the world. Through developing new technology, new products, and new processes—we’re always committed to improving our products and solutions. The more we grow and adapt, the more ready our customers and our industry is to meet tomorrow’s challenges as recycling shifts and changes.
Overall, the ban is causing countries, including the United States, to rethink what they do with their waste now that a chunk of it can no longer be swept away overseas. In that way, the ban is forcing longer-term change. China’s ban could eventually force the entire supply chain to change, from the initial design of the product, to local waste collection authorities, to the companies that sort and recycle trash—all of this is a good thing. Though costly upfront, China’s changes are helping the rest of the world adapt to a more sustainable way of life.