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The world is drowning in rubbish

Kate O’Neill argues that only global action will solve the crisis in recycling now that China has stopped importing scrap.

Two migrant workers select plastic bottles at a cycle disposal site on July 19, 2007 in Beijing, China.

In March 2018, China effectively halted imports of plastic and paper scrap, saying it would accept ‘no more foreign rubbish’. This action, known as Operation National Sword, was first announced in July 2017. That China was introducing restrictions was not a surprise to the global scrap industry, but their extent and the speed at which they were put in place were a shock. The move received wide coverage at the time, particularly its effect on local recycling policies and markets in countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia, which had eff ctively outsourced their recycling problem to China. Yet the shockwaves continue to reverberate, from United Nations treaty negotiations to the ports of Malaysia and Vietnam and to the streets of Californian cities among many others. China’s decision helped to kickstart an international campaign to reduce plastic waste, including restrictions on single-use consumer plastics. Pressure has been mounting week by week since March 2018, and has demonstrated the reach of global recycling and the challenges that must be met to build sustainable circular economies. It has also highlighted the evolving global waste economy in all its forms, the emergence of scrap as a globalized resource, the risks associated with this new resource frontier, and the challenges in policing it, both internationally and locally.


Between 2000 and 2018, China had taken in up to half the world’s plastic waste exported for recycling around the world. Demand from its booming manufacturing centres and the availability of cheap transport made these imports highly desirable for people on both sides of the deal. Although little reliable data is available, all estimates suggest that an appreciable quantity of shipped plastics was recycled, though questions remain about the environmental impact of these measures and the conditions people working in this sector had to endure. As the quantities shipped to China increased – peaking in 2012 at 350,000 tonnes from its five largest partners – so did the problems. Chief among these was contamination of waste which made it unsuitable for recycling – for example, plastic containers filled with rotting food, or bales of waste too mixed to be easily separated into different material streams. China’s earlier attempt to enforce contamination limits – Operation Green Fence in 2013 – led to temporary improvements, but failed to fix the problem.

Growing international awareness of the threat, through increased publicity, including a documentary, Plastic China, directed by Wang Jiuliang, which was seen in the West but also by high-ranking Politburo members, helped prompt China’s decision.

In 2017, the Environment Ministry announced that as of the end of 2017 – a date subsequently pushed back to March 2018 – allowable contamination limits would be lowered from 3 per cent to 0.5 per cent, a target almost impossible to meet.

Operation National Sword has been effective in reducing China’s imports of plastic and paper scrap. Recorded shipments fell to practically zero in 2018. But the impact on the recycling markets in the United States, Australia and other members of the OECD club of developed nations, countries that had eff ectively outsourced their recycling to China, was devastating.

Prices for scrap collapsed, affecting already cash-strapped local authorities and leading to plastic and paper rubbish piling up at ports and in warehouses. Much of this is now being sent to landfill sites or incinerated, as is the case in Britain.

There is no sign of China lifting these restrictions. Given that it is now generating large quantities of domestic rubbish itself, and its trade war with the US continues, China’s government is highly unlikely to change its mind.

The problem of what to do with our waste is continuing to unfold at the global and local levels. Internationally, the quest for new destinations, particularly for plastic, has dominated developments – and even at times news headlines.

At first, plastics brokers shifted exports to countries in South East Asia, often to facilities owned by Chinese companies, which had quickly relocated their operations.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand were, however, quickly swamped with mountains of plastic they didn’t have the capacity to deal with. In late 2018, their governments started refusing more plastic shipments. In March 2019, India followed suit. Despite these bans, smuggling has remained a problem – driven by supply but also demand from brokers in these countries who want the business. Malaysia’s environment minister made headlines in May by saying that her country intended to begin shipping plastic waste back to the countries it had come from.

The plastic problem was already high on the international agenda because of the growing volume of plastic debris in the world’s oceans, killing wildlife and starting to appear across the marine food chain.

Although plastic waste exported from developed countries makes up only a tiny fraction of marine plastics, some 186 countries agreed in June 2019 to amend the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal by adding plastic to a list of wastes subject to import restrictions.

The 1989 Convention is designed to stop wealthy northern countries dumping their waste in poorer southern countries, but it also contains measures to obtain written consent before shipping any hazardous wastes between member states. The Norway Amendment agreed in June requires any country exporting plastic waste to obtain express consent from the importing countries before shipping it. There are loopholes and exceptions within the convention, but it remains a significant milestone in the international drive to control the shipment of plastic waste around the world.

Recycling shockwaves

One thing the Convention cannot do, however, is control countries that decide to import wastes. Turkey, for instance, has become a major recipient for exported plastic, and in early September 2019, Argentina said it was changing its regulations on imported waste to enable it to handle larger quantities of ‘marginal’ scrap. This followed a similar move by Ecuador.

Local authorities across many OECD countries are now feeling the shockwaves from China’s decision to radically reduce imported waste, while the recycling industry is having to find new ways of improving the quality of material streams and boosting sorting and recycling capacities. Until recently, these countries had been guilty of ‘distancing’, the practice of shifting waste ‘out of sight, out of mind’, both literally and in people’s imaginations.

The fact that decisions made in Beijing can now shape what families thousands of miles away put out on the kerb for collection each week illustrates the impact of globalization. It also highlights the challenges of creating circular economies if markets for scrap can collapse so easily.

Many local recycling companies no longer pick up certain types of plastic. Recyclable plastic is split into seven types depending on its chemical make-up, and many companies are now not accepting numbers 3 to 7, the least recyclable plastics, which include plastic bags, film, polystyrene, straws and building materials such PVC pipes.

Others have stopped collecting glass, which is expensive to transport due to its weight and for which there are few recycling facilities, at least in the US.

As contracts come up for renegotiation, local authorities have had to pass on higher costs to households and businesses. Some are engaged in consumer education programmes, emphasizing the importance of cleaning and sorting recyclable waste, to prevent contamination and help cut costs.

Changes in the recycling market have affected the most vulnerable in society. In August 2019, the company RePlanet abruptly shut down nearly 300 collection facilities in California citing market fluctuations. These were places where people used to come to redeem the 5 or 10 cents deposits on bottles and cans. The closures have had a disproportionate impact on the very poor and the homeless, who have relied on these facilities to augment their income.

In addition, China’s measures have thwarted the ambitions of US cities such as San Francisco which hoped to achieve ‘zero waste’ status – meaning none of its rubbish would be sent to landfill – by 2020. These deadlines are no longer likely to be achieved.

The effects of Operation National Sword are being felt in all OECD countries that relied on China as a market for their recyclable waste, and have provided the impetus for policy changes along the plastics supply chain, from production through manufacturing and consumption, to the point of discard and beyond.

They have also shone a bright light on the new global waste and resource recovery economy. Wastes are globalized to an extent that was not previously visible. The hazardous waste trade – the dumping of toxic sludge and the like – on southern countries is a known phenomenon. However, the movement of ‘used’ goods or scrap has been less obvious, as have the changing global trends that have driven these movements.

All wastes are global: plastic, paper, discarded electronics, cars, bikes, clothes and even food waste cross national borders, as the forthcoming book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter, a journalist, shows. Yet these movements confound traditional assumptions about the wealthy north dumping on the poorer south.

In the case of plastic, demand from Chinese manufacturers drove this global business more than oversupply of plastic waste. Malaysia’s refusal to continue to import plastic waste shows the ability of southern countries to resist these shipments.

Given the extent to which northern countries have outsourced manufacturing – which provides the markets for recycled scrap – it seems unlikely that keeping discarded plastic at home is a viable solution over the longer term. To this end, some companies – including Chinese firms – are investigating building processing plants in the US to ship recycled pellets to China instead of the raw scrap.

Some reject the whole idea of recycling plastic – described in the extreme as ‘putting a Band-Aid on gangrene’. Instead they emphasize the need to reduce the consumption and therefore the production of plastics, especially single-use consumer plastics.

Circular Economy Package

These ideas are being put into practice in many parts of the world, most extensively in the European Union, which plans to fully implement its Circular Economy Package by 2030 by which time all plastic packaging should be recyclable.

Californian cities have led the way in America, although efforts to pass comprehensive state legislation on reducing plastics manufacture and use and creating a circular economy stalled in the state legislature on September 13, 2019. For now, it looks as if these initiatives will remain at national – supranational in the case of the EU – and local levels, without any international governance initiatives to bring them all together.

This situation is less than ideal. Experience with China, and with the inability of many rich countries to find replacement facilities or enact circular economy legislation, shows that circular economies need to be supported by international action, or they can break down. What this will look like – whether through some form of global governance or re-legitimated forms of the trade in waste, or both – remains uncertain.


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