China’s ban on imports of plastic waste is forcing nations like Japan and the United States to scramble as they look for new ways to deal with their trash, including exporting recyclable waste to Southeast Asia.
But instead of finding solutions, it appears the problem of disposing of recyclables has only become exacerbated, especially with the exploitation of developing countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam, which lack the regulatory infrastructure to prevent illegal dumping.
The ripple effects of developed nations being banned from shipping their scrap waste to China, previously the world’s biggest importer of plastic waste for recycling, have also surfaced in Japan.
Waste management companies are being flooded with requests to handle the extra plastic waste but many have reached their legal limits.
“The storerooms of intermediary companies are filled to the brim with garbage from businesses and factories,” said one official from a waste management company in Kanagawa prefecture.
China was criticised at a meeting of the World Trade Organisation in October for its abrupt policy shift, which many Western countries believe is detrimental to the global environment.
But after decades of importing most of the world’s trash, China has had enough – something advocates and activists say should come as no surprise, since China, the world’s second-largest economy, has an obligation to consider the health of its own people.
As its quality of life improves, the nation has naturally decided to reduce its emissions, including those from recycling plastics, experts say.
For decades, nearly half of the planet’s rubbish had been sent to China, where items such as single-use soda bottles, food wrappers and plastic bags were recycled to make more plastics and raw materials for chemicals.
In 2015, China imported about 47 million metric tons of recyclable waste, according to US media reports. According to the journal Science Advances, research done at the University of Georgia shows that China’s import ban will leave 111 million metric tons of plastic trash displaced by 2030.
In July last year, China said it would ban 24 types of solid waste, including plastics, scrap paper and discarded textiles, from overseas vendors because of the damage it does to the environment and people’s health.
Since the ban in January this year, recycling businesses around the world have been thrown into turmoil, with recyclable waste piling up at waste treatment sites, according to Western media.
In Japan, even if intermediate processors are commissioned to dispose of recyclable waste, facilities are subject to legal limits and there are many vendors that refuse to accept the trash.
Japan exports about 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year and until last year around half went to China. According to about a quarter of 102 local governments that responded to an environment ministry survey, the amount of plastics stored at local scrap companies increased between January and July, with some reporting that piled-up waste had exceeded the legal limits.
Limit violations were found at five local governments, while 34 municipalities said they were struggling to find destinations for their waste.
Plastic waste disposal increased at 56 per cent of intermediate processors that incinerate or shred plastics and at 25 per cent of final processors that bury waste in landfills, while 34.9 per cent of companies said they were limiting or considering restricting the amount of plastics they accept.
Japan produces the largest amount of plastic waste per person after the United States and has lagged behind other countries in curbing the use of plastics despite growing fears over environmental pollution.
Some industry insiders say the only option is to enhance the technical capabilities of recycling facilities through deregulation as well as to raise awareness of wasteful behaviour among retailers and consumers.
The ministry is compiling a strategy to reduce plastic waste, and sources say it is considering including a numerical target for cutting the amount of disposable plastic waste by 25 per cent by 2030, while increasing the use of environmentally friendly bioplastics made from plants.
Countries including the US, feeling most of the sting as the world’s biggest exporter of scrap, brought up the import ban at the WTO’s meeting on October 22. Along with the European Union, South Korea, Canada and Australia, Washington voiced concerns that China had not given a sufficient explanation for its policy change.
The US argued that if the disruption of the global recycling trade continued, there “could be a heightened threat of increased marine litter”, among other complaints. Japan also expressed its concern over the recycling crisis.
China, however, has committed further by saying it plans to expand its import ban on scrap materials to cover more categories. It says waste facilities that do not meet environmental standards are still rampant, leading to water and air pollution.
“The problem of foreign garbage is loathed by everyone in China,” said an official in charge of international cooperation at China’s environmental protection ministry, at a press briefing when the announcement of the ban was made in July last year.
Since China’s ban, exports from the US and other Western nations to countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and India have surged. But after it was revealed in October that a large amount of illegal dumping had occurred in Malaysia, many developing nations have hinted they intend to follow in China’s footsteps with their own restrictions on recyclable waste.
At any rate, the policy is forcing rich nations to reconsider what to do with their waste in the long term now that they can no longer dump it in China’s backyard.