Now that China doesn't want it, our plastic is piling up

Waste-exporting countries are being forced to get creative.

In 2017, the Chinese government unsheathed its so-called "National Sword" policy, a globally disruptive customs crackdown conceived to cease the flow of tainted solid waste — recyclable plastics included — into the country from a host of trash-exporting nations including the United States.

China's reasoning for the stunning about-face was straightforward. Officials announced that the precious waste being unloaded on the country was simply not clean enough and, as a result, was polluting the country's air and water. In 2016 alone, Chinese manufacturers imported a staggering 7.3 million metric tons of recovered plastic from the U.S. and other countries.

"To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently need to adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluting," read the Ministry of Environmental Protection's World Trade Organization filing, which outlawed 24 types of commonly imported waste including commonly recycled plastics such as PET and PVC along with mixed waste paper and certain textiles. (In April, a slew of additional verboten waste was added to the list.)

And just like that, a nation that had long embraced foreign garbage — ultra-lucrative plastic, in particular — with open arms started rejecting it. In turn, Chinese manufacturers were forced to turn to the country's own domestic waste stream to procure raw materials.

Even before the ban took effect at the beginning of 2018, serious concerns were raised about how China could produce enough recyclable waste to meet the incredibly high demand. Considering China's historically skimpy supply of high-quality homegrown scrap, would a ban on imported waste force manufacturers to rely more on virgin materials, which, in the end, are ultimately more expensive and environmentally damaging than recycled ones? Was China shooting itself in the foot?

Chinese officials, however, remain confident that the country's middle-class, a nascent segment of the Chinese population with consumption habits largely mirroring those of the very same nations that had been sending their waste to China for decades, are now buying and throwing away enough stuff to compensate for the lack of the imported stuff.

Workers at Beijing waste center Workers sort through a mountain of plastic rubbish for recycling at a Beijing waste center. (Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Several months into its implementation, the National Sword continues to rattle the countries dependent on China's trash-importing prowess. Waste exporters seem blindsided.

After all, this longstanding relationship with China was a mutually beneficially one. (Save for the part about China being left to cope with what's been portrayed as rampant contamination.) For years, China has wanted — no needed — waste generated by other countries to manufacture a massive variety of consumer products — products that inevitably wind up back in the countries where the waste originated. As Bloomberg aptly put it in July 2017, "foreign garbage is really just China's recycling coming home."

Now, it's clear just how unfortunate it is when a global manufacturing dynamo rebuffs the very nations that once eagerly supplied it with a limitless amount of raw materials like plastic. Lacking proper recycling infrastructure and unable to cope with the mounting volume of plastic waste that would have once been shipped to China without question, these nations are already slowly starting to drown under the weight of their own plastics. And if they haven't already felt the strain, they soon will.

Plastic on beach in Greece An increase in 'displaced' plastic waste means more plastic will be landfilled, incinerated and wind up polluting the natural environment. (Photo: Milos Bicankski/Getty Images)

An incoming plague of 'displaced' plastic

New research conducted by scientists at the University of Georgia offers a particularly grim assessment of the situation.

In their findings, published in the journal Science Advances, researchers note that the Chinese ban on foreign waste could potentially yield 111 million metric tons of "displaced" plastic waste by 2030. In other words, this is post-consumer plastic that, under previous circumstances, would have been shipped to China and accepted by customs before being hauled off to a processing facility where it's ground into the tiny pellets later used to manufacture, for example, smartphone cases. Instead, this waste will be buried in landfills, burnt in incinerators and wind up, as plastic tends to do, in our oceans.

In the U.S. alone, it's expected that the policy shift will generate 37 million metric tons of surplus plastic waste within the next 12 years.

"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," study co-author Jenna Jambeck elaborates in a press release. "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."

Jambeck and her colleagues note that since reporting began in 1992, China has accepted roughly 106 million metric tons of plastic waste, a figure that constitutes about half of all global plastic waste imports. In the months since China began enforcing National Sword, huge amounts of waste have landed in the neighboring countries of Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, all of which are ill-equipped to deal with such a massive influx. (China-style importing rules are in the works for Thailand.)

It's these countries, not necessarily the exporters, that are experiencing the immediate adverse impacts — accumulated plastic pile-ups — of China's almost (more on that in a bit) closed-door waste import policy. As reported by the Independent, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam already have the "unfortunate distinction" of being among the top 10 countries in the world when it comes to contributing to oceanic pollution levels. The surge of China-rejected waste into these countries is just exacerbating an already bad situation.

"Reports are showing that there are increases of waste in countries that don't have the infrastructure to support it," Brooks tells the Washington Post. "It's having a domino effect on the region."

Bale of crushed plastic bottles in Thailand While China's reliable stable of trash exporters scramble to find new recycling solutions, China-neighboring countries such as Thailand are accumulating huge amounts of orphaned waste. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

A 'real wake-up call'

Wealthy nations in Asia, Europe and the Americas — 43 in total — account for roughly 85 percent of all global plastic waste exports, with the U.S. being the top single exporter and the European Union, when considered collectively, being the top regional exporter. As of 2016, waste and scrap was the sixth largest American export to China, trailing goods like agricultural products and chemicals.

There's been a good amount of (understandable) panic radiating from countries impacted by the ban.

In January, the Guardian reported that British recyclers had become frantic just days into the new policy. It didn't take long for the doom and gloom to set in.

"You can already see the impact if you walk round some of our members' yards. Plastic is building up and if you were to go around those yards in a couple of months' time the situation would be even worse," says Simon Ellin of the UK Recycling Association. "We have relied on exporting plastic recycling to China for 20 years, and now people do not know what is going to happen. A lot of [our members] are now sitting back and seeing what comes out of the woodwork, but people are very worried."

However, the UGA study's lead author, doctoral student Amy Brooks, explains that approaching this multinational conundrum in a pragmatic, solution-oriented manner is the only realistic path forward and that, for the time being, a profusion of plastic waste will indeed need to be landfilled or incinerated — there's no way around it.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Brooks calls the current situation a "real wake-up call" and notes that impacted countries won't just need to take care of their own recycling and be aggressive about reusing plastic. These countries will also need to reconsider how they consume plastic altogether. And that's no small order.

"Historically, we've been depending on China to take in this recycled waste and now they are saying no," she says. "That waste has to be managed, and we have to manage it properly."

Workers sort recyclables at a solid waste facility in Oregon. Workers sort recyclables at a solid waste facility in Oregon. China has severely limited the import of recyclables from the U.S. due to high instances of contamination. (Photo: Natalie Behring/Getty Images)

The wraith of single-stream recycling

While it's easy to blame China for putting the kibosh on a nearly 30-year tradition of taking on everyone else's trash, it's also not hard to fault the fast-growing nation for wanting to curb recycling-related pollutants.

The prosperous countries impacted by the policy shift need to accept some culpability. For one, they got sloppy and abused an otherwise congruous scenario by sending China contaminated waste that it didn't want and couldn't use. These countries also could have also spent the last 20-odd years developing more robust domestic recycling infrastructure or preparing a contingency plan for the dreaded day when China would finally say no more. Instead, it would seem that many waste exporters have opted to remain willfully and collectively dismissive of the inevitable. Or oblivious. And now we're in this rather formidable pickle.

It should also be pointed out that, in retrospect, the make someone else deal with it mindset behind single-stream recycling wasn't the best idea when dealing with China-bound waste even though it was viewed as a godsend for sorting-wary U.S. consumers. That convenience has come at a cost.

"Single-stream recycling gave us more quantity, but less quality and has made recycling operations, in general, less economically viable, for some time," Jambeck tells National Geographic.

Plastic water bottles Single-use food and beverage containers are by the far the most common type of plastic waste exported by the U.S. and Europe. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San Francisco invests in decontamination

Despite the dispiriting figures put out by the University of Georgia and the overhaul turmoil absorbed by global waste markets, some impacted locales have found workarounds.

Take San Francisco, for example. China's new waste importing policies state that some imported plastics will continue to be accepted, so long as the shipments are found to have less than .5 percent contamination.

That's a low figure — one that the U.S. usually fails to achieve (to their own detriment.) But with no other way to adequately deal with plastic recyclables, San Francisco's waste recovery company, Recology, has hired more workers and slowed the sorting process. As Wired reports, a more deliberate decontamination process ensures that shipments originating from San Francisco are clean, high quality and capable of passing very strict muster. In other words, the city is sending China a commodity that it can't refuse — the crème de la crème of plastic scrap.

Wired notes that it's possible other cities could follow San Francisco's lead and invest in stepped-up decontamination measures.

Most cities, however, likely can't and won't. Sending China a much cleaner product, while certainly an effective fix that keeps the recycling gears in motion, isn't necessarily the best long-term solution. Eventually that .5 percent will drop to zero percent and then disappear completely. As mentioned, Brooks and her colleagues believe that the best solution is for governmental leaders in waste-exporting nations to promote a shift in thinking thats dramatically cut back on plastic usage altogether so that, at the end of the day, there's very little to recycle.

"My dream would be that this is a big enough wake up call to drive international agreements," Brooks tells Wired.

Japanese recycling facility Japan, which once heavily exported waste plastic to China, is poised to build more of its own advanced recycling facilities. (Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan feels the strain

Environmental campaigners in Japan, another country impacted by China's new restrictions, are pushing a similar message of reduced plastic consumption.

"The ministry is focusing on recycling plastic, but we want to address the problem before that point, the production of plastic," Akiko Tsuchiya, an activist for Greenpeace Japan, recently told the South China Morning Post. "Plastic is seen by Japanese people as being hygienic and practical in many situations, but we are trying to communicate to them the idea of carrying an eco-friendly bag when they go shopping rather than just taking a new plastic bag each time," she said. "But we fear that it will take a long time to change people's attitudes."

Per government statistics, Japan has historically shipped roughly 510,000 tons of plastic waste to China ever year. Under the new restrictions, only 30,000 tons were sent in the first five months of 2018.

As for Japan's environmental ministry, it is largely focused on ramping up domestic recycling capabilities, as alluded to by Tsuchiya. This includes building new, state-of-the-art recycling facilities. (It should be mentioned that Japan is a nation of excellent recyclers.) But the government also wants to change the way Japanese citizens view plastic consumption.

"We are also carrying out efforts to raise public awareness, while local governments are conducting campaigns with private enterprises to encourage people to reduce the number of plastic bags they use, for example," Hiroaki Kaneko, deputy director of the country's Recycling Promotion Division, tells the SCMP.

Outside of Japan, many cities and countries — the United Kingdom, in particular — are moving away from once-ubiquitous single-use plastic items. Drinking straw bans are seemingly all the rage these days — as they should be.

And while all of this anti-plastic action isn't necessarily in direct response to the impact of China's bruising — but ultimately catalytic —National Sword policy, it might as well be. There's no longer a place for all that plastic waste to go once it has been discarded, so why not just avoid it altogether?

As Jambeck tells the Washington Post: "People should feel empowered that their choices do matter."

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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