A shock with worldwide repercussions: China’s ban on plastic waste imports, introduced at the beginning of 2018, has left the global recycling market reeling. The loss of the largest importer caused a trade earthquake that has had serious environmental repercussions. 

For many years, plastic waste was shipped to China “because there was demand from its manufacturing sector, because [the country] wasn’t producing enough virgin plastic,” explains Berkeley University’s Kate O’Neill. Now, however, the production gap has been bridged as China “produces plastics for its domestic market and has a lot of plastic scrap of its own to recycle. This is very similar to the dynamics with electronic waste, because China imported a lot of that for a while – and illegally for quite a while too – only to start really cleaning up its recycling villages and creating more industrial parks for domestic recycling.” Furthermore, O’Neill adds, China’s worries about internal pollution levels and the desire to dispel its image as the world’s waste-disposal country had a significant influence on the ban. 

For these reasons, the flow of ships bringing plastic waste to Chinese ports and Hong Kong came to a halt. Often these ships were then loaded with products to be sold in Europe and North America. Many of these were derived from that same imported plastic waste, and manufactured in plants with poor sanitary, technological and environmental conditions. The Economist summed it up like this: “the Chinese ban removed the third leg of the ‘collect, sort, export’ system on which the West had long relied.” The consequences of the ban were exacerbated by a similar injunction on paper waste. The result has been that thousands of bales of plastic waste in the US, Europe and Australia are left “stranded” in the backyards of recycling companies. And the trend will continue: China has stated that it wants to extend the ban to other types of waste, worth an estimated 24 billion dollars a year. 

A report published by Greenpeace Italy in April (Le rotte globali, e italiane, dei rifiuti in plastica – “Global and Italian plastic waste routes”), gives a detailed account of the 21 largest importers and 21 largest exporters of plastic waste between January 2016 and November 2018. The exports table is led by the US, followed by Japan, Germany, UK and Belgium. The five largest importers are Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the US. Import figures are also growing in Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines, India, Taiwan, South Korea and Turkey, while Romania and Slovenia are increasing their share of exports within the EU. 

The report outlines two major critiques. Firstly, a majority of plastic waste is exported to countries with lax or barely-existent environmental regulations. Secondly, faced with the loss of China (which almost halved the export market), exporting states have had to manage a surplus that causes problems for local collection and recycling systems, paving the way for disposal to landfill and incinerators, as well as illegal exportation. 

The current nightmare for exporting businesses – finding alternatives to the Chinese market – has no easy solution, especially considering the economic implications. For Germany, for example, the main driver behind exporting to China was not the will to pursue a path of illegal disposal, but rather it was a matter of convenience. “Chinese importers were willing to pay higher rates than German competitors because they could take advantage of cheap labour. This allowed for manual waste sorting, which was not profitable in Germany,” explains Henning Wilts, Director of the circular economy department at Wuppertal Institut in Berlin. “Transport costs were low because the ships came back loaded with Chinese goods. Furthermore, environmental standards in China are not comparable to those in Germany, both for recycling processes and for the final treatment of the non-recyclable residuals. In Germany, these remainders are used as fuel in waste-to-energy plants, while in China they end up in the sea, as is the case for other Southeast Asian countries.” 

Things no longer add up in the US either: in the first six months of 2018, exports fell by 38% compared to 2017. “Suddenly, revenues from selling mixed waste to China which waste-management companies used to cross-subsidise collection, dried up, hitting margins for American waste-management companies,” notes The Economist.

To salvage the situation, German companies – that reduced exports by 20% in the first half of 2018 – turned to Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Turkey, where they unloaded 531,000 tonnes of waste (three times as much as the previous year), worth 169 million euro. “These countries, however, are not able to handle such a high volume of waste, and Vietnam recently imposed limits to imports. And so, the global merry-go-round of waste keeps turning,” Wilts concludes. 

Within this framework of constant reshuffling, there are also those who see the glass half-full and think of new opportunities opening up: the title of an article in the Associated Press, published on 18 May 2019, called the Chinese ban “a boon to US recycling plants.” “U.S. paper mills are expanding capacity to take advantage of a glut of cheap scrap. Some facilities that previously exported plastic or metal to China have retooled so they can process it themselves.” Just in terms of paper mills, a billion dollar’s worth of investments have been announced in the past six months. Among the investors there are even some Chinese firms, interested in acquiring paper, plastic and metal waste to be recycled and used in China’s manufacturing industry. Even though some municipalities have been forced to cut their waste sorting programmes because of the impossibility of disposing of the collected waste, “it’s a very good moment for recycling in the United States,” claims Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 

The key point, however, is to find a way out of the current, environmentally unsustainable management of global waste trade. Yong Geng (Jiao Tong University, Shanghai), Joseph Sarkis (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts) and Raimund Bleischwitz (University College London), have developed a global strategy to this end. They propose a five-step solution. The first step involves building a database on the coordinated use of resources that includes indicators for flows of materials, water and energy, managed by international organisations like UNEP. Then a worldwide digital information-exchange platform needs to be developed, modelled on Seoul’s Green Growth Knowledge Platform. Thirdly, experimentation needs to be promoted through international alliances. Pilot schemes for the sector, developed in Chile, Canada and Scandinavia, should be transferred to countries – like many African nations – that subsist on exporting raw materials. The fourth step outlines the need to develop and align standards for performance, reconditioning and for future products. Finally, the fifth step is aimed at policy makers: they have to support the introduction of regulations, solve controversies and apply sanctions on a global scale, beginning at the level of voluntary accords.

And, obviously – we add – waste production more generally must be reduced, if we really want to stop the merry-go-round. Otherwise, we are going to be buried under a mountain of waste.


The Economist, “A Chinese ban on rubbish imports is shaking up the global junk trade”, September 2018, www.economist.com/special-report/2018/09/27/a-chinese-ban-on-rubbish-imports-is-shaking-up-the-global-junk-trade

Greenpeace Italia, Le rotte globali, e italiane, dei rifiuti in plastica, April 2019, https://www.greenpeace.org/italy/rapporto/5246/le-rotte-globali-e-italiane-dei-rifiuti-in-plastica

Associated Press, “China’s ban on scrap imports a boon to US recycling plants”, May 2019, www.apnews.com/3d3d86a09b9647b795295e77355877db

“How to globalize the circular economy”, Nature, January 2019, www.researchgate.net/publication/330226578_How_to_globalize_the_circular_economy

Top image: Canton Bund and harbor looking downstream – From The New York Public Library