For as long as we can remember, we have sent our plastic recyclables to CHINA. 

Last July China warned us when they announced they no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump." They complained that the recyclable material received from other countries was not properly cleaned or was mixed with non-recyclable materials. 

On Jan 1 2018 China stopped importing 24 types of solid waste.

Mostly plastics.

Photo from PHYS.ORG

Photo from PHYS.ORG


Plastic recycling has taken place since the 1970s. We all trusted that it had evolved in this time to be an efficient closed-loop system, but compared to metal and glass, plastic recycling is more difficult because of its low density, low value and technical hurdles.

Mixing different kinds of plastics — such as polypropylene with polyethylene, the most widely manufactured plastics — is like mixing oil and water. The common use of dyes, fillers and other additives also makes plastic recycling more difficult. (BME

For years China was the world's largest importer of trash. In 2016, the country imported 7.3 million metric tons (8 tons) of plastic waste, valued at $3.7 billion, accounting for 56% of world imports. Mainly from Europe, Japan & the United States. 

Over the past two decades, China was keen to suck in as much plastic waste as possible, helping feed its manufacturing expansion. But policy makers took action after a string of scandals involving unscrupulous players in the waste market. (KHMER TIMES)

China's lucrative industry where plastic waste is turned into raw materials for local manufacturers seemed fine--or perhaps no one dared take a closer look at how the undesirable task was being executed.

A documentary, PLASTIC CHINA, highlights the human and environmental costs of the under-regulated, Wild West-style recycling industry. The film exposed that imported & pre-separated plastics were being mixed with other banned, highly-polluted elements, like medical waste. Workers sorted through waste with bare hands and toddlers sucked on discarded syringes. They were exposed to hazardous chemicals due to lack of oversight & regulations to govern recycling facilities. Toxic waste was dumped in rivers, the fish and shrimp are all dead, and the villagers are forced drink water from a nearby spring after the groundwater was deemed too toxic. The immense plastic waste contaminates food supplies, with plastic blowing into wheat-threshing machines or found in the bellies of livestock. The smoke from burning plastic became a regional environmental issue. Rural communities voice that their local governments are ignoring their health. Numerous towns showing increasingly high rates of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. 



There is a direct relationship between the diseases and the local plastics industry because PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) are a direct cause of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. Dioxins are also linked to cancer.  (from an interview with Wang Jiuliang; Filmmaker; "Beijing Besieged" & "Plastic China")  


In response, Beijing launched a campaign against harmful “foreign garbage” last year.  The environment minister explained in a notice to the World Trade Organization that "Large amounts of dirty... or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China's environment seriously."


China increased standards on imported foreign waste, only accepting material with a contamination level of no more than 0.5 per cent. Many look at this as unachievable when processing household waste like plastics. A plastic bottle with a lid or label would be rejected under the new restrictions.

Are these higher standards too strict or is the West just too lazy to rise to the challenge of properly sorting and decontaminating recyclable resources?

The ban has and will create challenges for Chinese companies dependent on foreign waste, however many predict the ban will push Chinese recycling companies to increase their standards and clean up their act to save their businesses. Some of the worst-hit exporters of plastic waste are based in the United States and Britain – leaving those two countries scrambling to find alternative places to take their rubbish. However, Chinese investors will be scrambling as well considering the global plastic exports to China could sink from 7.4 million tonnes in 2016 to 1.5 million tonnes in 2018. (PHYS



A US-based transfer station is among many outlets no longer taking plastics for recycling after China's ban on importing 24 types of solid waste. (Image  BME )

A US-based transfer station is among many outlets no longer taking plastics for recycling after China's ban on importing 24 types of solid waste. (Image BME)

With only 6 months of official notice that this ban was coming, many companies specialising in transferring waste from recycling companies in one nation to another are refusing to buy mixed plastics where some are simply demanding more money for plastic than it would cost to dump the material in a landfill. Yikes.. On top of the increased charge, there is no guarantee this company will recycle the plastics. YIKES.

The West is waiting--whilst the waste piles up--for a new country to step up to be the next garbage dump. We will likely see domestic recycling capacities increase in an effort to reduce exports. But industry officials say this could take years and may still not be enough.

Faced with growing stockpiles of plastic waste, many British and US companies are either burning some plastics for energy recovery or sending the materials to landfill, several industry researchers said. Both of these methods will have a catastrophic impact on the environment, they warned. In Australia, recyclers who are unable to ship their waste to China will be forced into more expensive solutions, and may have to renegotiate their contracts with local councils so ratepayers could end up footing the bill.

Everyone seems to be pointing blame at each other instead of reflecting on their own contribution to this global waste disaster. Western companies chastising China for caring only about their domestic environment and not the global environment, blaming this ban as the reason recyclables are now being landfilled. 

However, Hong Kong recycler, Damier van Leuven, shakes his head, “If anyone has a problem selling their scrap plastic right now, they should not be complaining – they should be looking at themselves because this … has been on the cards for quite a while.” Damien van Leuven is the founder of Vanden Global, an international plastics recycling company based in Hong Kong. 



A worker sorts recyclable plastic waste outside of Bangkok, Thailand. 2017 Reuters

With this ban, the trash refused by China is expected to be exported to Southeast Asian countries and the Middle East. However, the domestic recycling companies in developed countries are worried and already experiencing the challenges.  They are independently working to line up companies in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand or Malaysia to handle their materials. It could be more expensive than shipping waste to China since sending recyclables to China is cheaper because they are placed on ships that would "otherwise be empty" when they return to the Asian country after delivering consumer goods.

To date, the world has produced more than 8 billion tonnes of plastic. Only 9 % has been recycled. Just under 80 % has been treated as waste – sent to landfill sites or dumped in the oceans. According to Greenpeace, the nationwide recycling rate for packaging in Australia is only about 10%.

The U.S. alone exports 1 1/2 million tons of paper & plastic per month. 1 million of that went to China. In 2016, the US shipped more than 16 million tonnes of scrap commodities to China worth more than $5.2 billion. The European Union exports half of its collected and sorted plastics, 85 percent of which went to China. Ireland alone exported 95 % of its plastic waste to China in 2016. Australia averages 619,000 tonnes of materials — worth $523 million — to China every year. (ABC) Southeast Asia is not ready to make up the difference.

Over the past year Chinese investors in the plastics recycling sector were already scouting many of these Southeast Asian countries to fill the void left in China.

Most of these countries have yet to develop their own domestic recycling collection and public awareness about the issue, but their access to cheap labour and close proximity to China’s manufacturing industries work in their favour.

Imports of plastic waste into Southeast Asia are already rising fast. Estimates on the annual imports of plastic scrap into Malaysia jumped to 450,000-500,000 tonnes in 2017 from 288,000 tonnes in 2016. Vietnam’s imports rose by 62 percent to 500,000-550,000 tonnes for 2017, while Thailand and Indonesia showed increases of up to 117 percent and 65 percent respectively. (KHMER TIMES)

So a huge influx of unregulated waste to the next buying country with less resources and less infrastructure to manage all of this waste seems like a disaster waiting to happen! Not only for the environment, communities of families and workers, but also would likely result in similar bans on waste. Thus, industry officials are urging Southeast Asian nations to tighten health and safety regulations, so that they can properly monitor what plastics enter their countries, limit the spread of hazardous chemical waste and any negative impact on human health and stop illegal practices BEFORE getting swept up in the appeal of foreign investment and trade.



This is not a total crisis yet, but a wake-up call which should serve as the trigger to take responsibility for our own waste and transition to a cleaner economy. 

The No. 1 thing that consumers around the world can do to help this situation is to improve the quality of recycling. It sucks, but many recycling companies are actually advising people to put things in the landfill instead of guessing that something is recyclable. 

With so many different rules applying across counties, regions, countries, just try to keep your recyclables as clean as possible and pre-sorted. Food containers need to be rinsed thoroughly, soda and juice bottles need to be rinsed. Plastic grocery bags get entangled in sorting equipment, so bag up soft plastics together. Used clothing, string, containers with medical residue and especially soiled disposable diapers sadly all go to the landfill. 

As awareness rises over the dangers of allowing plastic waste to end up in the sea where it poisons fish and can enter the human food chain, recycling capacity will need to grow considerably worldwide. This decision from China is not a surprise to all of us with our eyes open. It may seem like a disaster for the companies who have been participating in a corrupt system. Hopefully the right people rise to this opportunity to clean up the recycling game, both domestically and abroad. 

On a HAPPY NOTE, last week the EU unveiled plans to phase out single-use plastics such as coffee cups and make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030. (Read more here or here) The tide is turning on plastics...


The Australian Federal Government is steering clear of this issue; in a statement, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said, "Waste management and recycling is primarily the responsibility of state, territory and local governments."

Certainly, if your federal leaders refuse to take action, it is up to the individuals to lead the charge. All levels of government could show leadership by mandating the use of recycled product in their purchasing policies. Industry could also be instructed to use recycled content wherever possible, while consumers could be encouraged to choose recycled packaging through the introduction of clear labelling disclosing the degree of recycled content.

Many recycling companies have known about China's ban and have put systems in place in preparation. Lismore City Council, (home of the recycling centre for my local, Byron Bay) has installed an optical sorter prior to China’s green wall, which means they are separating specific types of plastic far before the ban was enacted to comply with higher standards and also participate in the evolving markets in Australia for some types of plastic. "For the mixed plastic bales LCC is exploring avenues and are confident the market will adapt. This is similar in a way to when glass lost its market and out of that grew the glass sand. " (Barbara Jensen, Lismore MRF) 

"Glass Sand." Here glass is recycled into sand which can be used locally for roads.

"Glass Sand." Here glass is recycled into sand which can be used locally for roads.

This is similar to the work that Re.Group is doing. Garth Lamb, business development manager for Sydney-based Re.Group says "At this facility we process all the glass that we receive, which is about a third of everything that comes in. We make that back into sand that we can reuse locally. And instead of mining a beach or a river bed and getting new sand, we can use this more sustainable product for building all kinds of infrastructure like roads."

South Australian data has shown that an extra 25,000 jobs would be created over five years by recycling and reusing our waste rather than dumping or exporting it. The chief executive of Green Industries South Australia, Vaughan Levitzke, said it was time the Government stepped in and supported innovation in a move to a circular economy. "Recycling generally generates about nine times more (local) jobs per tonne of waste than sending it to landfill," says Mr Lamb of Re.Group.





Kathryn Nelson1 Comment