BY GAIL BARNES
For more than three decades, recycled goods have been imported to China, feeding the country’s manufacturing boom. Despite that, in an 18 July filing with the World Trade Organization (WTO), China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said recovered mixed paper – as well as recycled PET, PE, PVC and PS, textiles and vanadium slag – would be banned from import into the country later this year.
The imports ban has been framed as a way for China to build up its domestic materials recovery infrastructure, but the WTO filing indicates at least part of the motivation is focused on quality control and pollution reduction. “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,” the environmental ministry wrote, adding “this polluted China’s environment seriously. To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”
Impact of the ‘war on foreign garbage’
The Chinese government has long played up stories about foreign waste, partly, it is said, to deflect attention from unmanageable garbage problems at home. While it may be a popular move internally, far from solving China’s environmental problems, the recent crackdown could result in worsening them. For all the issues with imported recyclable materials, those generated in China are said to be more contaminated – which is why Chinese recyclers are said to want to continue importing foreign garbage.
According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, nearly 180 million tons of recyclables worth $87 billion were traded globally in 2015, with China being the major importer of recovered paper and plastic scrap. By some estimates, China’s paper recycling rate could be as high as 70% if packaging for products that were originally produced in China are factored in.
The Chinese war on foreign garbage will have a major impact on the recycling industry – both in China as well as abroad. If imports are cut off, many local Chinese recyclers will shut down. Due to a lack of infrastructure in many European and North America markets – for example, because of government incentives to export post-consumer plastic rather than recycle locally – much of the 7 million metric tons of plastic and 29 million metric tons of paper that China imports annually will have nowhere to go, except to landfill, or for countries where this is an option, incineration. Jobs are also likely to be lost.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) commented on the ban, stating it would have a ‘devastating impact’ on recycling on a global scale and in the US. “More than 155,000 direct jobs are supported by the US industry’s export activities, earning an average wage of almost $76,000 and contributing more than $3 billion to federal, state, and local taxes,” Robin Wiener, ISRI’s president, noted. “A ban on imports of scrap commodities into China would be catastrophic to the recycling industry.”
What has happened in China is a tipping point that makes manifest a problem far deeper than inadequate international infrastructure for recycling. The writing is on the wall: fundamental change in the way we make and use packaging, particularly plastic packaging, is needed, along with a more holistic approach to infrastructure for waste management and leveraging of new technology that includes composting of flexible packaging along with food waste.
The demand for plastics is expected to double in the next 20 years, yet most plastic packaging items are used only once before being discarded, and globally only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. The remainder gets incinerated or send to landfill. Worse still, more than 30% of discarded packaging leaks out into the environment, leading to the awful statistic that there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation makes the case that it is only through systemic change – a regenerative circular economy made possible by bringing together the entire industry to fundamentally rethink the way we make and use plastics – that we can prevent plastic from becoming waste in the first place. For example, in a more holistic approach to waste management, increased adoption of compostable flexible packaging could allow these packages, which have thus far been difficult or impossible to recycle, to be sent for composting along with food waste.
Stepping up to the plate
In the United Kingdom, Marks & Spencer has redesigned and repackaged more than 140 best-selling products to cut its use of plastic use, and in doing so, saving 75 tons of packaging a year.
And Unilever has committed to ensuring all of its plastic packaging is designed to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The company is also investing in proving, and then sharing with the industry, a technical solution to recycle multi-layered sachets, particularly for coastal areas, which are most at risk of plastics leaking into the ocean.
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