What are the consequences of China’s import ban on global plastic waste? | Earth.Org – Past | Present

China is the world leading producer and consumer of plastics. For more than two decades, the country has also been the dumping ground for foreign nations’ waste as the world’s largest importer. In 2017, the year before Chinais strict import ban entered into force, the country imported nearly 600,000 tonnes of plastic waste. We look at the reasons for the ban and its ripple effects on global plastic management.

Plastic pollution has plagued China for decades. The country is currently the largest manufacturer of plastic in the world with an annual average of 60 million tonnes – of which only about 30% is recycled. It also counts for almost a third of the global production of single-use and virgin plastics. Until 2017, China was also the biggest plastic importer. Between 2010 and 2016, it imported an average of 8 million tons of plastic from more than 90 countries around the world. In 2016, the highest volume of plastic exports came from Hong Kong – by far the world’s largest exporter to mainland China at nearly 2 million tonnes – Japan and the United States. Among the many countries in Western Europe that send their plastic waste to China, Germany comes first with around 390,000 tonnes per year. These imports have contributed to 10 to 13% additional from plastic waste to the already huge amount that China has struggled to manage in recent years.




Figure 1: Global plastic waste exports, 1988-2016

Why has China imported so much plastic waste?

The trend of exporting waste started between the 1980s and 1990s, when China started importing plastic and other waste from less economically developed regions for use as raw materials for processing and manufacturing, and to compensate for a shortage of national resources. It was a win-win situation. On the one hand, Chinese companies have finally had access to high-quality raw materials. On the other hand, exporting countries have benefited from this significantly cheaper way of treating their waste. Imports boomed at the start of the new century after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001: opening up to international business, China saw a dramatic increase in its demand for raw materials due to the development fast industrial.

Several studies have proven the benefits of importing recyclable waste, from saving energy, since less production of similar materials from virgin natural resources is required, to ensuring a stable supply of high-quality materials and generating high yields for the manufacturing industry. recycling of the importing country. However, there were also several downsides, including the environmental repercussions of managing such huge amounts of waste. For China, the waste recycling industry that once contributed to the country’s prosperity and rapid industrialization has turned into a low-profit, low-value business. Additionally, the industry became largely responsible for a massive increase in air and water pollution across the country, a problem that was already out of control. If the country wants to keep its promise to reach carbon neutral by 2060, emissions must be drastically reduced and it must be done quickly. One way to do this is to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. With several interventions and a long-awaited import ban, China hopes to reduce its emissions and get closer to net zero.

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What does China’s ban on plastic imports mean?

In 2017, the Chinese government announced a ban on the import of solid waste, including several types of plastics and other recyclable waste. The list of 24 items of materials initially banned from entering China included eight types of post-consumer plastic waste, one type of unsorted paper, a dozen types of used textiles and four metal slag containing vanadium.

The import ban came into effect on January 1, 2018. However, just two months later, the Chinese government announced an even stricter policy that drastically reduced the levels of contamination that would be allowed on a number of waste imports, an amount so small that essentially turned this policy into another ban. According to customs data, the move imports of solid waste halved and nearly ceased imports of plastic waste in 2018. At the end of 2019, China added 16 more materials to the list, only to announce the following year a Prohibition of all imports of solid waste as well as the dumping, stacking and disposal of waste from abroad. Effective January 1, 2021, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment stopped issuing import licenses from overseas as part of a series of policies aimed at tackling pollution and requiring the industry to improve processing.

In the same year, China launched a five-year action plan facilitate the phasing out of the manufacture and circulation of single-use plastics – which are almost entirely made from fossil fuels – while promoting alternatives and stimulating recycling. The government has introduced several new policies targeting plastic shopping bags and the use of disposable plastics in restaurants.

How is Chinait is Import ban Affecting countries around the world?

While that of the country import ban will most likely have a positive impact on China’s long-term environmental sustainability by increasing the prospects for mitigating the carbon footprint and trade flows of plastic waste around the world, it has also had a dramatic impact on countries that have relied heavily of China to manage their waste. The decision to ban all imports of plastic waste and other recyclable materials had immediate and widespread repercussions and huge problems for the global recycling industry. When the ban was introduced, experts felt that more than 100 million metric tons of plastic waste would be displaced because of the policy by 2030. The Chinese government’s decision would also impact more than 676,000 tons of waste, worth around US$278 million.

import ban in china

Figure 2: Cumulative Displaced Plastic Waste Following Chinese Import Ban

Countries like the United States – which exported about 4,000 containers of garbage to China every day before the ban took effect – redirected most of their shipments to Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. However, when the latter was overtaken, it decided to follow China’s strategy and crack down on waste imports. Indeed, countries around the world – some of which already lacked the proper infrastructure to manage their own waste – were unprepared to absorb such large amounts of waste generated by the rest of the world. As more and more import markets stopped accepting waste, exporting countries around the world began hoarding massive amounts.

The United States is not the only country paying the price for the import ban. Dependence on China for a decade has also stifled the development of the internal market and waste management infrastructure in many European countries, including Germany and Belgium. The lack of adequate recycling plants has not only forced many of them to find other markets to export their waste, but it has also increased their incineration rates. In England, for example, burnt waste increased by 665,000 tonnes in 2019.

import ban in china

Figure 3: Plastic exports to China by top 10 exporting countries, 2016

However, in the long term, China’s ban could have positive consequences for other nations. First and foremost, Western countries would finally be forced to find their own way of managing the waste they generate instead of relying on help from third countries, with experts predicting an overhaul of waste disposal systems . In addition, new “receiver” countries, such as many developing countries in Southeast Asia, could potentially benefit from the growing flow of cheap recyclable materials, which were key to China’s successful industrial development in the early days. of the century.

Main takeaways

As China tackles plastic pollution at home, its actions – so far – feed the scourge globally. Although there is still not enough evidence that China’s strategies to reduce the overall amount of plastic – from banning waste imports to phasing out single-use plastics in businesses – are benefiting in the country, experts are concerned about the repercussions that these decisions have everywhere else. .

It is true, however, that as the world leader in plastic production and one of the most polluting countries in the world, China had to act now. And other countries should do the same. Waste is the fourth sector of emissions and plastic alone is expected to generate more carbon emissions than coal by 2030, making plastic pollution one of the the biggest environmental problems of our life. While the immediate repercussions of China’s policies are devastating for nations around the world, the ban will also force them to find new ways to manage their own waste and implement new policies aimed at reducing the global flow of plastic. At least China is finally taking action to tackle a huge global problem. What are other countries’ long-term plans for waste management?

Bryce K. Locke