China bans foreign waste – but what will happen to the world’s recycling?
20th October 2017 | Recycling
The dominant position that China holds in global manufacturing means that for many years China has also been the largest global importer of many types of recyclable materials. Last year, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3m metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan.
However, in July 2017, China announced big changes in the quality control placed on imported materials, notifying the World Trade Organisation that it will ban imports of 24 categories of recyclable and solid waste by the end of the year. This campaign against yang laii or “foreign garbage” applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper and will result in China taking a lot less material as it replaces imported materials with recycled material collected in its own domestic market, from its growing middle-class and Western-influenced consumers.
The impact of this will be far-reaching. China is the dominant market for recycled plastic. There are concerns that much of the waste that China currently imports, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go.
This applies equally to other countries including the EU27, where 87% of the recycled plastic collected was exported directly, or indirectly (via Hong Kong), to China. Japan and the US also rely on China to buy their recycled plastic. Last year, the US exported 1.42m tons of scrap plastics, worth an estimated US$495m to China.
So what will happen to the plastic these countries collect through household recycling systems once the Chinese refuse to accept it? What are the alternatives?
Plastics collected for recycling could go to energy recovery (incineration). They are, after all, a fossil-fuel based material and burn extremely well – so on a positive note, they could generate electricity and improve energy self-sufficiency.
They could also go to landfill (no ideal) – imagine the press headlines. Alternatively, materials could be stored until new markets are found. This also brings problems, however – there have been hundreds of fires at sites where recyclable materials are stored.
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