Roundabout Recycling

Could China’s garbage ban create a dangerous game of hot potato, as rich countries struggle to deal with their waste?

By Greg Pustorino

Starting in the 1980s China imported more than half of the world’s plastic and recyclable waste. At this time, the Chinese economy was growing amidst a wave of reforms that lifted many of the communist government’s controls and restrictions on the economy. This allowed the private sector to flourish and created demand for raw materials like plastic, rubber, and aluminum. 

After importing the recyclable waste, mostly from the US, European Union, and Japan, independent Chinese businessmen would move the waste to less economically developed rural areas in China’s interior. When the trash arrived in the countryside, small independent manufacturers would buy it and use the raw materials to make products.

However, in January of 2018 the Chinese government banned virtually all importation of garbage. By 2018 US exports of plastic scraps fell by 89%. This massive ban on garbage shook the recycling industry, which is a $100 billion industry in the US alone. The market has still not recovered from this momentous change. University of Georgia researchers published a study which predicts that the world will have 111 million metric tons of plastic trash by the end of 2020 and have no place to put it and no ability to recycle it. 

This sudden change caused countries around the world to scramble for new dumping grounds for their waste. Many governments, including the US, looked to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and especially India as replacements for the huge Chinese market. These countries lack environmental regulations, similar to China before the ban, therefore they accept recyclables of lower quality. Additionally, Japan has a build up of nearly 500,000 tons of plastic waste, which has overwhelmed their domestic recycling capabilities. As the second largest exporter of plastic waste, behind the US, Japan has spent billions of yen subsidizing the plastic recycling industry in an effort to stimulate private companies and increase their domestic capability to handle their growing hoard of plastic.

Recently, several Southeast Asain countries that absorbed plastic waste displaced after China’s ban, have started to push back. Indonesia and the Philippines have started to regulate the garbade trade, and have placed bans of their own on plastic and other recyclables. Furthermore, Malaysia has started to send back containers of trash imported from the US as the country becomes infuriated at being a dumping ground for the West. The rejected containers were supposed to contain plastic scrap, but were contaminated with other materials which make recycling more expensive. 

This problem of contaminated recycled waste has plagued these Southeast Asain countries since the Chinese garbage ban. Moreover, a large part of the garbage that is imported is mixed waste which cannot be easily recycled. This causes plastics and other wastes to accumulate along the countries’ shores. As the waste builds up it is often illegally incinerated or dumped in unregulated landfills. The highly toxic fumes produced by incineration pollute water sources and harm agricultural communities throughout the region. Further, if the garbage avoids incineration and does not find its way into a land fill it will eventually seep into the ocean. Annually, about 13 million tons of plastic waste leaks into the oceans, causing an estimated $13 billion of damage to the environment.

As rich countries begin to sober up to the idea of disposing of their own waste, they have started to fund campaigns to promote proper recycling and research into more efficient recycling methods. Companies like BP, Dow, and Unilever have invested tens of millions of dollars into chemical recycling. Chemical recycling is a process that breaks polymers (plastics) down to more simple components called monomers which can be utilized to make new plastics. If the process can be perfected it will be far less energy intensive than traditional recycling and be able to recycle a larger variety of plastics. Additionally, chemical recycling preserves the quality of the material better than heat treated recycling. This allows the recycled material to be reused three or more times.   

According to a study from the Science Advances journal, only 9% of all plastic waste produced has been recycled. A large reason for this is the inadequate sorting which traditional recycling methods cannot cope with. The main reason China was able to import such a high quantity of the world’s garbage for decades was because it accepted dirty and mixed recyclables. This was due to China’s large supply of low-wage workers who sorted out unwanted material that could not be recycled by hand. This phenomena gave many rich countries little to no incentive to develop efficient sorting techniques for recycling in the 1980s and 1990s. And it caused many companies to stop researching chemical recycling techniques which had been around since 1950.  Consequently, many rich countries today are ill-equipped to deal with their own waste after China’s refusal to be a dumping ground any longer.

To combat the sorting issue in recycling plastic waste, cities throughout the US have created campaigns to educate people on how to correctly recycle their waste. After China’s ban, the city of Philadelphia paid $92 a ton for its recyclables to be collected, an increase from $44 a ton pre-ban. This led the city to spend $500,000 on an advertising campaign that it hopes will reduce contamination rates from 25% to 10% and ensure a discount on collection costs. □


Work Cited

  1. Image source
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