Estimated mass of global displaced plastic waste due to the new Chinese import ban based on cumulative imports of PE, PS, PVC, and other plastics into China (UN Comtrade data). The BAU (business as usual) projection of Chinese imports was created by using a linear regression of the last 10 years of imports. The Chinese ban on importation of plastic waste is based on a 100 percent implementation of the regulation. Graphic: Brooks, et al., 2018 / Scientific Advances

By Sara Kiley Watson
28 June 2018

(NPR) – For more than 25 years, many developed countries, including the U.S., have been sending massive amounts of plastic waste to China instead of recycling it on their own.

Some 106 million metric tons — about 45 percent — of the world's plastics set for recycling have been exported to China since reporting to the United Nations Comtrade Database began in 1992.

But in 2017, China passed the National Sword policy banning plastic waste from being imported — for the protection of the environment and people's health — beginning in January 2018.

Now that China won't take it, what's happening to the leftover waste?

According to the authors of a new study, it's piling up.

"We have heard reports of waste accumulating in these places that depend on China," says Amy Brooks, a doctoral student of engineering at the University of Georgia and the lead author of the study published in Scientific Advances last week.

She says some of it is ending up in landfills, being incinerated or sent to other countries "that lack the infrastructure to properly manage it."

By 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced because of China's new law, the study estimates. This is equal to nearly half of all plastic waste that has been imported globally since 1988.

Rapid expansion of disposable plastics in the 1990s — and single-use containers — drove imports up rapidly. Yearly global imports grew 723 percent, to around 15 million megatons, from 1993 to 2016. [more]

China Has Refused To Recycle The West's Plastics. What Now?


Trade of plastic waste in mass and trade value (UN Comtrade data), 1995-2016. (A) Advances in Municipal Recovery Facility (MRF) technology resulting in expansion of commingled recycling, especially single-stream recycling in the United States (1995–2005) (see the Supplementary Materials). (B) Surge in globalization, supported by the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund (29–31). (C) Implementation of temporary Chinese import restrictions (Green Fence) (2013). (D) Implementation of the new Chinese policy banning the import of nonindustrial plastic waste (2017). Graphic: Brooks, et al., 2018 / Scientific Advances

ABSTRACT: The rapid growth of the use and disposal of plastic materials has proved to be a challenge for solid waste management systems with impacts on our environment and ocean. While recycling and the circular economy have been touted as potential solutions, upward of half of the plastic waste intended for recycling has been exported to hundreds of countries around the world. China, which has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, recently implemented a new policy banning the importation of most plastic waste, begging the question of where the plastic waste will go now. We use commodity trade data for mass and value, region, and income level to illustrate that higher-income countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation have been exporting plastic waste (70% in 2016) to lower-income countries in the East Asia and Pacific for decades. An estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced with the new Chinese policy by 2030. As 89% of historical exports consist of polymer groups often used in single-use plastic food packaging (polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyethylene terephthalate), bold global ideas and actions for reducing quantities of nonrecyclable materials, redesigning products, and funding domestic plastic waste management are needed.

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

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