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.