China Bans Plastic Scrap. Now What?

Do you ever wonder where the used plastic yogurt pots and peanut butter jars we toss in our recycling bin end up? Until recently, most of this plastic was shipped to China for recycling. Since 1992, China has imported 45% of the world’s plastic scrap. But China closed its ports to used plastic on January 1, 2018, and now The United States, along with the other 122 countries that export plastic waste, is wondering what’s next. A new paper in the journal Science Advances by Amy Brooks, Sunli Wong and Jenna Jambeck looks at the global impact of China’s plastic ban.

In 1950 the world produced 2 million metric tons (MT) of plastic. In 2015, 322 million MT were produced. Despite huge increases in the production and use of non-biodegradable plastics, little thought was given to its disposal. Today eighty percent of all plastic ever produced sits in landfills or has leaked into the environment. Some say recycling is the answer to sustainable plastic use. Now China, the biggest recycler of plastic in the world, is getting out of the business.

China was king of plastic scrap. Other countries in Southeast Asia also import used plastic, and now there is enormous pressure on the remaining importers to take our scrap. Thailand imported almost thirty times as much plastic scrap in the first four months after China’s ban than it did in the same period in 2017. Companies that turn plastic waste into the pellets used to manufacture new plastic items moved factories from China to Thailand, where they could still get plastic waste to feed their factories. Thailand does not have the waste management infrastructure needed to deal with its own plastic waste let alone the environmental safeguards necessary to handle the flood of imported waste. This June, Thailand banned all imports of plastic scrap. Vietnam did too.

Generally, wealthy countries with robust waste management infrastructure ship their plastic scrap to poorer countries that don’t manage waste well. China, for instance, leaks more plastic into the ocean than any other country in the world. How much of the plastic floating in the middle of the ocean was first shipped overseas for recycling? Moving plastic waste to countries that can’t handle it may allow us to reach our recycling goals, but it does not solve the problem of plastic waste in the environment. Once plastic enters the ocean, it’s everyone’s problem.

Brooks, Wong and Jambeck calculate that China’s ban will displace 111 million MT of the world’s plastic waste by 2030. This adds new urgency to our plastic waste problems and requires bold, new ideas. Two bold and promising ideas proposed in the paper are the Basel Convention and an import tax. The Basel Convention is an international agreement enacted in 1992 which promotes the environmentally sound management of waste that crosses international boundaries. If plastic scrap were characterized as “waste requiring special consideration” under the Basel Convention, exporting countries would share responsibility for ensuring that plastic scrap is properly managed. The second idea is to impose an import tax on plastic scrap. Importing countries would use this money to develop waste management infrastructure needed to stop waste from leaking into the environment.

These are uncertain times for plastic recycling, but China’s ban may be the kick we need to find solutions to our plastic waste problem. For now, we can all help keep plastic out of the ocean and off our beaches. Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Pick up trash. Throw it away. Reuse your clean plastic bags by adding them to a BlueTube and make it easy for others to pick up trash too. If your shore doesn’t have a BlueTube yet, it should. Order one today!