Scientists calculate impact of China's ban on plastic waste imports

June 20, 2018, University of Georgia
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

While recycling is often touted as the solution to the large-scale production of plastic waste, upwards of half of the plastic waste intended for recycling is exported from higher income countries to other nations, with China historically taking the largest share.

But in 2017, China passed the "National Sword" policy, which permanently bans the of non-industrial as of January 2018. Now, scientists from the University of Georgia have calculated the potential global impact of this legislation and how it might affect efforts to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the world's landfills and natural environment.

They published their findings today in the journal Science Advances.

"We know from our previous studies that only 9 percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, and the majority of it ends up in landfills or the natural environment," said Jenna Jambeck, associate professor in UGA's College of engineering and co-author of the study. "About 111 million metric tons of plastic waste is going to be displaced because of the import ban through 2030, so we're going to have to develop more robust recycling programs domestically and rethink the use and design of plastic products if we want to deal with this waste responsibly."

Global annual imports and exports of plastic waste skyrocketed in 1993, growing by about 800 percent through 2016.

Since reporting began in 1992, China has accepted about 106 million metric tons of plastic waste, which accounts for nearly half of the world's plastic waste imports. China and Hong Kong have imported more than 72 percent of all plastic waste, but most of the waste that enters Hong Kong—about 63 percent—is exported to China.

This animated graphic shows how many metric tons of plastic waste were imported or exported by select countries from 1996 to 2016. It also includes an estimation of how much plastic waste will be displaced should current trends continue to 2030. Credit: Lindsay Robinson

High income countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas account for more than 85 percent of all global plastic waste exports. Taken collectively, the European Union is the top exporter.

"Plastic waste was once a fairly profitable business for China, because they could use or resell the recycled plastic waste," said Amy Brooks, a doctoral student in UGA's College of Engineering and lead author of the paper. "But a lot of the plastic China received in recent years was poor quality, and it became difficult to turn a profit. China is also producing more plastic waste domestically, so it doesn't have to rely on other nations for waste."

For exporters, cheap processing fees in China meant that shipping waste overseas was less expensive than transporting the materials domestically via truck or rail, said Brooks.

"It's hard to predict what will happen to the plastic waste that was once destined for Chinese processing facilities," said Jambeck. "Some of it could be diverted to other countries, but most of them lack the infrastructure to manage their own waste let alone the waste produced by the rest of the world."

The import of plastic waste to China contributed an additional 10 to 13 percent of on top of what they were already having a difficult time managing because of rapid economic growth before the import ban took effect, Jambeck said.

"Without bold new ideas and system-wide changes, even the relatively low current recycling rates will no longer be met, and our previously recycled materials could now end up in landfills," Jambeck said.

Explore further: Study shows plastic waste can be converted into energy and fuels

More information: A.L. Brooks el al., "The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade," Science Advances (2018). advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaat0131

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carbon_unit
1 / 5 (1) Jun 20, 2018
We've got to figure out how to refine plastics. Knock them back to their base chemicals and start over.

Weirdly, our hauler takes plastics, but only if in the form of a bottle. They select not on plastic type, but shape! That strikes me as extremely weird. This leaves me with all sorts of perfectly good PETE that they will not take. The only thing I can figure is that it has something to do with their single stream sorting.
RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (1) Jun 20, 2018
Huge opportunity for some third world and/or poorer African countries to cash in on a problem that they can solve. They have cheap labour and growing economies, much like China was 50 years ago.
24volts
not rated yet Jun 21, 2018
There are a lot of people trying to 3d build houses with concrete. The machines could be modified to use recycled plastic instead. Grind it up, melt it back down and cast it into maybe 1" thick rods that the machines could use like hot glue sticks. It would probably last as long as concrete houses do and all the wiring channels and stuff like that could easily be incorporated into the builds just as easily as the concrete versions. I don't think I would go multiple stories but it should be plenty strong enough for two stories. It would also be pretty weather proof as long as it was anchored down solidly.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Jun 21, 2018
...or we could just think about ways of not producing plastic waste.

I know, that whole 'renewable' and 'sustainable' thing isn't very popular - but instead of having issues dealing with a problem: how about let's not have the problem in the first place?
24volts
not rated yet Jun 21, 2018
I totally agree with you on that one AP. Just bringing back glass soda pop bottles and cardboard fast food containers would make a sizable dent in it and that is just two types of items. Stopping the impossible to get into plastic shrink wrapping on just about everything else and using cardboard boxes for stuff on average store shelves certainly wouldn't hurt either. At least cardboard is fairly easy to recycle.
gkam
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 21, 2018
We will start to use "biodegradable" plastics next, until we find out they still leave microscopic pieces, and will have to find something else to screw up the Earth.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (2) Jun 21, 2018
a_p, who bells the cat? 24v's suggestion sounds reasonable until you get into the down & dirty economics of replacing plastic packaging with other materials.

It takes five truck loads of paper bags (remember those?) to be equivalent in usefulness of one truck load of plastic bags.

Cardboard boxes have even more handicaps. Think of how much extra labor you will have to pay for handling them. Who pays for storing them onsite? If there is even room for empty boxes. Fire hazard, anybody?

Oh man, I remember the vermin problems we had with boxes. Empty ecological niche right next to all that food. You can spray the outside of the boxes all you want. But the vermin are safely tucked away inside. Only the employees handling the boxes come in contact with the poisons.

Are you willing to accept the liability and cost of medical care? Neither will the corporate suits.

I guess now that the unions have been broken, you can force the workers to accept being poisoned?
24volts
not rated yet Jun 21, 2018
It might take more truck loads for paper bags but then those bags get recycled for all kinds of uses that the plastic ones don't. It would add a few jobs also there. There isn't even anyone around here that recycles the plastic bags you get from stores. They all end up in the landfill. As far as cardboard boxes go, there are any number of things that are still packaged in them and people don't have vermin problems if they keep the place clean either. Packing boxes would also add a few jobs. Low paying ones probably but any job is better than none. Just ask anyone that can't find one and would like to eat!

rrwillsj
1 / 5 (3) Jun 22, 2018
24v, since you are volunteering to set a good example for all the rest of us? Here's your apron. Mighty cute you look. My advice, buy yourself a good pair of steel-toed work shoes and heavy leather gloves. You'll need'em.

And it is mighty generous of you to volunteer your community to endure a big truck a day instead of one a week, to deliver those bags and boxes. And the extra sanitation trucks needed to collect those paper & cardboard packaging, every other day. And the extra taxes to constantly repaving the roadways in your community being used by the diesel-fume spewing monster trucks.

Once your neighbors realize what wonderful things you are accomplishing for them? I'm certain they will hoist you up on their shoulders. Bearing you in procession to loud hosannas of celebratory acclaim!

Oh wait... Is that a tub of tar and big sacks of feathers?

Whoa, them good old days are here again!
24volts
not rated yet Jun 22, 2018
you are a complete and utter asshole did you know that? Don't waste your idiotic time replying to anything else I ever post again ok. You are now blocked anyway.
ZoeBell
Jun 22, 2018
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