Opportunity in Waste Material
How did China end up as the world’s largest buyer of plastic trash? In the 1990s, as China moved to become the world’s leading manufacturer, it began buying recycled plastics from the United States, Europe, Japan, and other nations. It developed the ability to process that material into goods. But much of that waste was low quality and added to China’s mounting health and environmental problems.
Additionally, China remains without fully developed waste management systems, the study concludes. An estimated 1.3-to-3.5 million metric tons enters the oceans from China’s coastline. Between 2010 and 2016, imported plastic waste to China added an additional 10 to 13 percent to the country’s domestic waste, increasing China’s difficulties in managing its garbage.
As China moved to address its growing environmental problems, it announced last year it would stop buying 24 types of waste, including recycled plastics.
The study’s authors see China’s shift as an “opportunity” for other nations to create better recycling systems at home. In the United States, for example, the introduction of “single-stream” recycling, which co-mingles paper, metal, glass, and plastics together—to be sorted by a recycling facility—led to more recyclables that are less pure, and less valuable.
“Single-stream recycling gave us more quantity, but less quality and has made recycling operations, in general, less economically viable, for some time,” Jambeck says.
Those complications should not discourage the recycling industry from retooling, Jambeck says. Redesign of plastic products that takes into account what happens to those products at the end of their life will also go a long way toward improving recycling. Failure to create effective domestic recycling programs only enhances motivation to use less plastic overall.
The Basel Convention, the international treaty that controls movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal, could come into play. “If plastic waste were characterized as waste requiring special consideration, then export could potentially be regulated,” Jambeck and Brooks say. They also suggest importers could tax plastic waste, to create enough funding to construct solid waste management infrastructure to handle it.
They conclude with a somber warning: “Where will the plastic waste go now? Without bold new ideas and management strategies, current recycling rates will no longer be met, and ambitious goals and timelines for future recycling growth will be insurmountable.”
Source: Jenna Jambeck, University of Georgia, in Science Advances, UN Comtrade.