China’s ban on plastic waste imports exposes a global vulnerability that nations must quickly address.
Swissquote and The Visual Capitalist take us on a visual journey on how China ending its role as the biggest importer of plastic scraps exposed the world’s infrastructural weakness in processing recyclables and waste.
A global dumpster
For decades, developed countries have used China as a massive dumpster, exporting their waste to the country in order to evade the towering costs of processing it within their territories.
Since it began reporting figures in 1992, China has imported 106 million MT of plastic waste, which translates to about 45.1% of all the imports. Including Hong Kong, this figure rises to a staggering 72.4%.
For quite some time, this worked well. At China’s end, importing plastic waste has allowed the country to access cheap fuel for its growing manufacturing industry.
Things have changed drastically with China’s “National Sword” policy. Enacted in 2018, this policy bans the importation of 24 types of solid waste, which includes different types of plastic. On top of these restrictions, fewer businesses have been granted import licenses.
This is among the biggest steps China has taken in terms of environment policy in recent history. Given the country’s frailing environmental conditions, this is undeniably much needed.
“We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously,” China said in their World Trade Organization (WTO) filing.
A year since its implementation, the policy was proven effective. A 99-percentage point drop in plastic imports had been observed, and mixed paper imports were also cut down by a third.
The world’s biggest plastic waste importer suddenly closing its doors doesn’t come without repercussions.
The National Sword policy’s restrictions created a vacuum in processing plastic waste which exporters — especially the largest ones — quickly realised they cannot fill in due to a lack of suitable infrastructure and technology.
With this, Western countries have quickly diverted their plastic waste shipments to the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, and the Philippines. In retaliation, some of these countries have already imposed restrictions and temporary bans of plastic waste.
“Richer nations are shipping their problems down here so they can take advantage of the poor environmental standards. It’s deplorable,” Lea Guerrero, Country Director for Greenpeace Philippines told TIME.
Clearly, looking for the world’s next dumpsite is far from being a sustainable solution. We cannot resolve a problem which we keep on trying to evade.
Now that there still remains no alternative material that can replace plastic and considering the fact that there already exists millions of tons of plastic waste polluting our environment, the most viable solution is to invest in infrastructure which can properly process plastic waste and in researching novel ways that it can be recycled.
Brooks, Amy & Wang, Shunli & Jambeck, Jenna. (2018). The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade. Science Advances. 4. 10.1126/sciadv.aat0131.