China Bans Foreign Plastic Sending Recycling Industry Into a Spin

A ban on the importing of foreign plastics meant chaos for many countries used to shipping off plastic waste.

Last year, China stopped accepting plastic waste from foreign countries and its thrown the world recycling sector into chaos. If you live in Germany, Italy, Australia or Brazil it's likely that some of your plastic waste has ended its life in China being recycled into a higher quality product for reuse.

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But last year China said it was going to stop accepting almost all foreign waste in an effort to improve its own environment and air quality.

This move had major recycling centers in the country looking for a new home as well as the companies that ship the plastic waste scrambling to find alternatives. It was like an earthquake," Arnaud Brunet, director general of Brussels-based industry group The Bureau of International Recycling, told AFP.

"China was the biggest market for recyclables. It created a major shock in the global market."

New locations needed

Most major recyclers have looked to other locations in Southeast Asia to continue their businesses with many choosing Malaysia as their new home. Reports from the countries officials suggest plastic imports tripled from 2016 levels to 870,000 tonnes last year.

But that number could even be higher as any plants have reportedly been set up illegally without proper paperwork.

Plastic recycling is a toxic process that requires melting plastics of the same type down to form plastic pellets that can be then used to manufacture new products. Poorly maintained factors cause huge amounts of toxic fumes that can significantly lower local air quality.

Australia goes local 

Locals in Malaysia also reported massive piles of plastic waste piling up outside factories as they struggled to meet the demand the ban in China imposed. Countries used to sending their waste offshore have also been trying to adapt to the changes.

Many countries like Australia face huge increases in costs if they process waste within their own territories and there are some reports that recyclable materials have been placed in a landfill to deal with the excess.

However, others have managed to respond to the changes and are successfully using local systems to recycle plastics.

"We moved quickly and looked to domestic markets," Adam Faulkner, chief executive of the Northern Adelaide Waste Management Authority, told AFP.

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"We've found that by supporting local manufacturers, we've been able to get back to pre-China ban prices," he added.

Less waste is the only answer

Greenpeace reports that imports of plastic waste to mainland China have dropped from 600,000 tonnes per month in 2016 to about 30,000 a month in 2018. Areas once famous for their recycling centers are now a ghost town.

Founder of environmental NGO China Zero Waste Alliance, Chen Liwen said on a recent visit to the southern town of Xingtan last year the only evidence of a once thriving recycling center was empty factories and job ads for experienced recycling personnel in Vietnam.

“The plastic recyclers were gone -- there were 'for rent' signs plastered on factory doors and even recruitment signs calling for experienced recyclers to move to Vietnam," she told AFP.

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However, the ban from China has not halted waste but simply moved it sideways.

Thailand and Vietnam did experience spikes in recycling centers but have made moves to limit the amount of plastic waste being imported.

These imports are expected to head towards countries with less strict legislation like Turkey and Indonesia. Despite what seems a massive effort towards recycling, only nine percent of the world's plastic is recycled.

This means a lot of our everyday products are heading towards the landfill.

"The only solution to plastic pollution is producing less plastic,” says Greenpeace campaigner Kate Lin.

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