For more than two decades developed countries have been touting the progress they have made in recycling waste through developing new technologies, building plants to make recycled products, and introducing legislation to make consumers sort and dispose of their rubbish properly.
The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) based in Belgium boasts that recycled materials now supply 40% of global raw material needs and that the industry has an annual turnover of more than $200bn, similar in value to the economies of countries like Portugal, Columbia and Malaysia.
The assumption most frequently made is that most of the recycling takes place in Europe and North America, where environmentalists are the most vocal, the public most aware and governments the most active in supporting green technology and sustainable solutions.
In fact, industrial giants like the US, Japan, Europe and the UK have been literally dumping their rubbish in China, shipping scrap earmarked for recycling at low cost to the Asian country, which in 2016 processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals.
This amounted to 45m tonnes, or about $18bn worth of imported scrap.
Chinese labourers manually separated the waste, which was often contaminated and sometimes hazardous to their health. It was then absorbed into the country’s booming manufacturing base, although observers warned that some of the scrap was incinerated or ended up in the world’s oceans.
But not anymore.
The Chinese government told the World Trade Organisation last year that out of concern for the environment and public health it could no longer accept “foreign garbage”. It proceeded to ban the import of 24 kinds of scrap, disrupting the cross-border flows of waste that underpin global recycling markets.
The blow to plastic recyclers was the hardest – according to one study, China took 56% of the weight of global scrap plastic exports in 2014. Arnaud Brunet, head of the BIR, says that global plastic waste exports to China could plunge to 1.5m tonnes this year from 7.4m tonnes in 2016.
Just weeks after the ban took effect at the start of this year, waste management facilities in several countries – including the US, Canada, the UK and Germany – were in crisis, overwhelmed by thousands of tonnes of plastics and paper which they did not know what to do with. The rubbish piled up in recycling yards, shipping containers and empty storage sheds, or was eventually buried in landfills.
Prices for scrap plummeted, putting recyclers in developed countries under pressure or out of business. The US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has warned that the ban would devastate an industry that supported 155 000 jobs and exported $5.6bn of waste to China in 2016.
But American chemical producers are salivating, as China has begun buying new plastic instead of recycled material – US exports of polyethylene plastic are now expected to climb to 5m tonnes by 2020, a five-fold increase since 2016.
China has in fact been cracking down on industrial pollution for several years, and signalling its intent to end its role as the world’s recycler, launching a campaign called Operation Green Fence in 2013 to block imports of illegal and low-quality waste.
A documentary called Plastic China, which was screened last year, proved to be the final straw. It focused on an uneducated girl working in a community that sprung up around sorting and recycling rubbish, exposing everyone in it to toxic chemicals and dangerous working conditions. The film went viral on the Chinese internet, sparking public outrage before it was wiped offline by the country’s authorities. The filmmaker, Wang Jiuliang, said he had scars on his face from overexposure to chemicals which he encountered while making the film.
Greenpeace has warned that the ban may result in huge quantities of waste being instead shipped to the Southeast Asian nations of Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, which have less-developed, less-regulated waste industries. The shift has already begun, according to some reports.
Nonetheless, the disruption should force waste-exporting countries to invest more in their own recycling infrastructure, and tackle the issue at the source by reducing the production of plastics and other disposable goods, Greenpeace maintains.
The process has already begun. The EU now intends to make all plastic packaging on its market recyclable by 2030, and wants to ban plastic cutlery, plates and straws as part of its strategy to reduce “single-use” plastics.
After initial resistance, the UK said it would drop its opposition to EU targets and back a goal of recycling two thirds of urban waste by 2035.