WE ARE taught that plastics disposed in specific bins are eventually recycled. Little were we told about the fate of plastics, mostly transported to China, and hardly ever transformed into new goods because they were made of non-recyclable materials. Since 1992, 106 million metric tons, or nearly half of all the plastics on earth have been reported to enter China according to a study published in Science Advances. But in January 2018, China introduced new environmental regulations banning the import of 24 types of solid waste, including waste plastics. This ended China’s long-standing role as the world’s recycling plant, but more importantly, it revealed the structural shortcomings of a global system premised on the role of a few territories as the dumping ground for the rest of the world.
Crisis in global waste trade
China has been the largest plastic waste purchaser since the advent of recycling in the 1990s, processing 45-55% of all plastic trash worldwide according to Asia News Network. Waste purchasing grew dramatically since it allowed exporters to maximize profits through the process of backhauling—when Chinese cargoes delivered Chinese goods to other countries they would load empty cargo ships with that country’s plastic waste for processing back in China*.
However, China’s import of plastic soon sparked domestic environmental and health concerns. Much of the waste flowing into China was low-quality and contaminated plastic waste such as food and drink containers, plastics that cannot be adequately processed and are often set aside for landfills and incineration**. In 2013, China implemented a “Green Fence” policy to inspect incoming shipments and reject low-quality waste, however, given the vast number of containers, this was impractical to enforce***.
Meanwhile, China was facing its own waste problems. Domestic waste had sky rocketed with the growth in consumption and processing foreign waste on top of that quickly became burdensome.
Eventually, the Chinese ban, the “National Sword” policy, virtually outlawed plastic scrap imports. The Chinese government would require all plastic imports to comply with a 99.5% purity standard to enter the country, waste almost entirely free of contamination. Since most waste came mainly from consumption, such a bar of cleanliness was out of reach for exporters, leaving them to either smuggle their waste into China or export only high-quality waste.
The target of the National Sword Policy was plastic waste exporters, specifically the United States, Europe and Japan, and followed by other developed economies like South Korea or Australia. For decades, the world’s plastic waste management was built entirely on trade with China. The comparative cheaper workforce and looser regulations made it more convenient for exporting countries to divert their waste overseas than to process it locally.
Once the Chinese ban came into force, the shock revealed the serious inefficiency of the global recycling system and the unpreparedness of domestic recycling capacities throughout the developed world, leaving states scattering to find a dumping site for their waste.
Global recycling, the unveiling of an illusion
Shortly after China announced its new ban, many Southeast Asian states witnessed a dramatic increase in the volume of plastic waste crossing their borders. Between January and April of 2018, Thailand experienced a 6,985% increase in plastic waste imports compared to the same period in 2017, and in Malaysia there was a similar 611% increase, according to Descartes Datamyne.
This sudden increase in plastic waste has caused a degree of chaos. Recyclers began to operate across the region without permits, often burning plastics. Similar mismanagement of plastic waste in Malaysia has been reported to cause severe health conditions to residents as well as environmental damage. As of October 2018, the Malaysian government was aware of at least 41 illegal factories operating according to Reuters, 30 of which were later shut down as reported to National Geographic.
Suddenly flooded with millions of tons of waste, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan decided to cut off waste inflow. During 2018, they all passed trade restrictions on plastic waste imports****. Malaysia initially froze plastic waste imports and social outcry forced it to adopt a permanent ban on “plastic scrap,” though it postponed a total ban on all plastic wastes for another three years*****.
Exporters operating in the $200 billion recycling industry profit from the economic benefits of plastic waste trade by passing off waste to importing countries. Plastic waste trade has operated only under conditions of free trade so far, allowing for the rampant transport of low-quality and contaminated plastic waste to countries with no institutional, economic or technological resources to manage it.
With Southeast Asian import restrictions, developed countries are no longer safe from the increasing stress caused by the ongoing waste trade crisis. Estimates say as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will require a new destination by 2030. Of the current plastic waste being traded, 89% is single-use plastics not suitable for recycling while only a meager 9% of all plastic waste is finally recycled. Hence, analysts convene that the waste crisis has been an impactful “wake-up call”, bringing to light the failure of the current global waste management system and the pressing need to reform it******.
Necessary adjustments to waste management
With the waste trade crisis spilling over internationally, states and other actors have been endeavoring to set clear parameters for how to move forward with marine plastic pollution under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), but no concerted international action has addressed the waste management dimension of the crisis yet. Currently, the only international law governing the transport of waste is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, a binding multilateral treaty concluded in 1989 to prevent hazardous waste from inflicting harm on human health and the environment*******.
Last October, Norway submitted a Proposal to amend the Basel Convention to include non-hazardous plastic waste within the scope of waste for “special consideration,” which would ensure increased transparency and control to recipient countries according to a explanatory note by Norway. If passed, destination countries would have to be notified of plastic waste trade and would reserve the right to deny the import of plastic waste, unless they are uncontaminated, pre-sorted plastics and suitable for immediate recycling. The proposal will be discussed at the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention, which is to take place in Geneva from April 29 to May 10. European recyclers have expressed their opposition to the reform on the grounds of its vague wording and its negative consequences for legal recycling, according to Waste Management World.
Within academia, some researchers advocate for the adoption of global standards to evaluate national capacity to manage waste********. Outside of the aim to regulate waste trade, some waste exporting countries are opting for a radical reduction of single-use plastics domestically. Most notably, the European Parliament approved a binding directive on March 28 to ban single-use plastics across the European Union by 2021*********. But measures elsewhere are slower-paced and less far-reaching, only targeting specific items such as plastic bags or straws.
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Now that the global waste management system has collapsed, and the consequences are there for all to see, leaders worldwide will likely engage in a global conversation on what to do with the world’s waste. “The ‘recycling myth’ is broken,” states environmentalist organization Greenpeace*. At this point, offshoring practices with plastic waste seem to have their days numbered as countries start facing increasing external and internal pressure to assume their own waste.
***East Asia Forum
****Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)
******Yale Environment 360
*******Center for International Environmental Law
********Resources, Conservation & Recycling