CHINA’S campaign against “foreign garbage” or yang laji has had a global impact on recycling – starting from 2018, it will no longer accept poor quality scrap plastic (often contaminated with things like used diapers) for recycling.

As waste piles up in ports, warehouses and elsewhere in developed countries, many are now searching for ways to deal with the problem of too much plastic.

For many years, China has been the largest global importer of many types of recyclable materials. Shipping is cheap: cargo ships carry goods from China to Western countries and carry scrap back, a process known as reverse haulage.

China’s booming industries are located near major ports and hungry for plastics they do not yet produce at home, so they willingly pay for high-quality imported scrap to reuse.

For US-based waste collectors, selling scrap to a broker to be shipped to China is cheaper than sending it to recycling facilities at home, as reported in The Conversation.

China was the world’s dominant importer of plastic waste. In 2016, it imported 7.3 million tonnes of waste plastics, valued at US$3.7bil (RM14.4bil), accounting for 56% of world imports. 87% of the recycled plastic collected in the EU was exported to China.

But the Chinese government has now decided to stop importing poor quality recyclable materials (those often mixed with other waste), to address domestic concerns over pollution and public health.

Country’s image

China has acted before, but not so decisively. In a 2013 initiative called Operation Green Fence, China sharply increased inspections of imported bales, shipping back substandard scrap at exporters’ expense and forcing them to pay more attention to quality.

Almost immediately, shippers began diverting scrap to other ports for cleaning or possible disposal. Vietnam and Malaysia saw sharp spikes in plastic scrap imports.

Chinese leaders have very real concerns over the nation’s environmental crisis and its high-profile image as the “world’s dump site”.

Filmmaker Wang Jiuliang spotlighted the scrap issue in an award-winning 2016 documentary, Plastic China, which focuses on an unschooled 11-year-old girl who lives and works with her family in a plastic recycling workshop. The film went viral online in China after its release, then was quickly deleted from China’s internet.

Waste Dive, the must-read daily bulletin of waste-related news, named China’s action as the “Disruptor of the Year”. It could reshape an overlooked but critical segment of the global economy: the cross-border flows of scrap that underpin recyclng markets worldwide.

Developed countries have underinvested in recycling infrastructure for years. For instance, the US has not built a new high-quality plastics recycling facility since 2003, and very few of its existing plants can cost-effectively process harder-to-recycle, often dirty post-consumer plastics, noted Kate O’Neill, Associate Professor of Global Environmental Politics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Plastic scrap is especially problematic. It has low economic value and is hard to recycle. It also breaks down extremely slowly in the environment, as evidenced by the buildup of plastic debris in the world’s oceans.

Few are aware that up to half of the plastic waste Americans throw into recycling bins in Berkeley, New York or Omaha has wound up on container ships to China.

Europe recycles 30% of its plastics (compared to 9% in the United States), but the majority of waste plastic still winds up in landfills and in the oceans.

There are concerns that much of the waste will have nowhere else to go. – The Conversation