At the end of 2017, as part of their ongoing environmental reform, the Chinese government implemented a permanent ban on the import of non-industrial plastic waste. Up until that point, the nation had been accepting massive shipments of bags, bottles, packaging, straws, and other fossil fuel-derived polymer detritus from 123 other countries so that local plants could melt it down and reform it into new commercial products.
According to a study by the University of Georgia, China accepted 7.35 million tons of plastic waste intended for recycling in 2016 alone; more than half of the total amount exported that year. (More than 320 million tons of plastic waste are now created each year, and only an estimated 9 percent gets recycled. Eighty percent ends up in landfills or the oceans.)
If you’re wondering why most of the countries in the world haven’t been recycling their own waste, the sad answer is that sorting and processing the highly contaminated plastic waste stream is challenging and expensively energy-consuming; thus, transporting the junk to China, a manufacturing powerhouse already equipped with the necessary infrastructure, has long been the easy solution.
Given this drastic shift in policy, the authors, all materials engineers, wondered what the future plastic waste burden will look like if the rest of the world carries on buying and tossing items made of these unsustainable materials at today’s rates.
Their study, published in Science Advances, made projections using 28 years of plastic waste import/export information compiled by the UN Commodity Trade Database.
Assuming a ‘business as usual’ consumption level, the team predicts that we will have accumulated 111 million metric tons (244.7 billion pounds) of stranded plastic waste by 2030.
Depressingly, this shocking figure is likely on the conservative end because the UN trade ledgers only account for documented waste movement. The existing black market for plastic transactions, though minimal compared with the above-board transactions, will inflate the issue.
“The displaced plastic waste is equal to nearly half (47%) of all plastic waste that has been imported globally since reporting began in 1988,” they wrote.
“With plastic production and use continuing to rise, and companies and countries both committing to circular economies and increasing plastic recycling rates, the quantity of plastic waste needing a ‘home’ will continue to increase for the foreseeable future,” the authors continued, touching upon the fact that more and more governments and industry leaders are pledging to recycle – rather than immediately landfill – plastic products, yet none are prepared to undertake the process themselves.
“Both the displaced plastic waste and future increases in plastic recycling must be addressed immediately.”
Lead researcher Amy Brooks and her colleagues recommend that the nine high-income countries (including the US and UK) who export 87 percent of the world’s total waste should regard this dire warning as an opportunity to develop their internal recycling markets, as the other top plastic waste importing nations do not have the means to take China’s share.
As for how individuals can do their part, the first two steps of the standby environmental tenet ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ remain solid advice.
“These are really simple things that you can try to do,” Brooks told The Verge. “And I know that people don’t really feel like they’re making a difference when they do that on their own [...] but when millions of people start doing that, it will absolutely make a difference.”