Last updated June 25, 2018 at 9:40 am
No longer can we sweep our plastic waste under the carpet – we’re going to need to do something ourselves.
New research from the US has highlighted just how much trouble western countries are in following China’s recent ban on plastic waste imports.
A team from the University of Georgia looked at the scale of the shuffling of waste around the globe, revealing just how much we’ll be affected by the change in policy.
And the news is pretty grim for western countries like Australia.
According to their sums, over the next decade there will be an extra 111 million tons of plastic waste globally to deal with. And Australia will be trying to deal with around 7 million tons of that.
A global shift in recycling
In a masterful move of letting someone else deal with our problems, countries have been exporting plastic waste to poorer countries for years, with the largest importers being China and India.
What you have probably assumed was heading for recycling locally has instead been sent overseas and processed there.
According to the new analysis, China has imported around 45% of the world’s plastic waste since 1992.
However, higher-income countries like the United States and Germany have been shifting their plastic waste to lower-income countries such as India for even longer, and in gigantic quantities. In 2016 alone, they sent 70% of their plastics to such nations.
That process hit a major hurdle at the end of 2017 when China announced a ban on non-industrial plastic waste imports, sending shockwaves around the world and leaving countries wondering what they were meant to do with their plastic waste now.
The researchers calculated the potential global impact of this change and how it might affect efforts to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the world’s landfills and natural environment.
“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 from the University of Georgia 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.”
China’s recycling industry
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.
“Plastic waste was once a fairly profitable business for China, because they could use or resell the recycled plastic waste,” said Amy Brooks who led the research.
“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.”
This shift in policy threw a spanner in the works – no longer would China accept plastic from other countries. Until then, China had been an attractive prospect due to cheap processing fees that made it less expensive to ship waste overseas than transport the materials domestically via truck or rail.
“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.”
Rather than a problem however, this should be seen as an opportunity to develop more efficient recycling processes locally rather than continuing to push our waste to smaller countries, or just sending it to landfill.
Only 9 percent of all plastic produced has ever been recycled.
“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.
This could be the catalyst needed for developing a more robust, efficient local recycling industry, however there will be a lead-time while that builds up. However, as stockpiles of waste have built up, prices have plummeted – recent changes in the economics now make it cheaper to import glass than recycle it. Without a strong economic argument, progress could be slow.
Instead, some hope this could be a motivation to reduce plastic use as a community, taking the strain off groaning recycling and waste management systems and moving towards a greater reliance on sustainable products instead.
The research has been published in Science Advances