When China took action to protect its borders from foreign plastic pollution by effectively shutting its doors to plastic waste imports in the beginning of 2018, it threw the global plastic recycling industry into chaos.
Wealthy countries had grown accustomed to exporting their plastic problems, with little thought or effort to ensure that the plastic they were exporting got recycled and did not harm other countries. North Americans and Europeans exported not just their plastic waste, but the pollution that went with getting rid of it.
In 2017 China enacted a new policy, called National Sword, for economic and environmental reasons including pollution from importing and processing plastic waste. By refusing to be the world’s dumping ground, China’s policy—and the fallout that resulted from it—revealed the true cost of rampant consumption, plastic production, and the problems and limitations of recycling as a solution to a world suffocating in its own plastic.
Plastic waste—and the environmental and health problems it causes—was diverted to other shores, stressing infrastructure and amplifying the problems of plastic pollution in lower-income countries awash in the trash of wealthy nations.
“PLASTIC SCRAP FLOODS MALAYSIA: “YOU ASK PEOPLE TO DIE, WHILE YOU GO TO HEAVEN, AND WE GO TO HELL.”
After China closed its doors to recycling imports, cargo ships laden with tons of plastic scrap from the United States and Europe were diverted to the port of Klang on the western coast of Malaysia. From January to November of 2018, Malaysia was the top importer of plastic scrap, receiving 15.7% of total plastic exports from the top exporting countries.
The challenge with plastic scrap lies with the significant quantities from plastic exports that cannot be recycled because the bale is contaminated with non-recyclable plastic or plastic that is too expensive to recycle, or because sorting and separating recyclable components are too labor-intensive and in many cases environmentally destructive.
“IT’S TOXIC TRASH AND WE ARE LIVING HERE”
When China instituted their new policy, Thailand saw the largest percentage increase of foreign waste imports from the previous year, at over 1000 percent. Much of the imported trash was absorbed into the country’s waste and recycling infrastructure, exacerbating existing issues of a mostly unregulated, and sometimes violent, industry.
Sarayoot Sonraksa is a shrimp farmer and a former biochemist. The community asks him for help when they are having trouble with water, electricity or local disputes. They also complain about illegal dumping, the choking smell from burning plastic, or their fields singed and barren from industrial waste dumping. He says dealing with the waste industry is the most dangerous thing he has to do.
Treasure in the Trash
A year ago, North Sumengko in East Java, Indonesia was a village of maize and rice fields. Today, there are piles of plastic waste, heaped into mounds two meters high in the middle of the road, collecting in slopes and valleys of front-yard scrap shops, scattered along the roadsides or smoldering in sprawling makeshift dumps among banana trees and soot-covered bamboo stands.
As countries like Malaysia and Thailand tightened their laws around importing plastic waste and increased enforcement, the Indonesian government has yet to take action against the incoming scourge of plastic waste, and financial insecurity in the country has created an opening for the informal plastic waste industry.
New Destinations Begin Imposing Bans
Importing countries, recognizing the devastation that the plastic waste trade has caused for their people and environment, have followed China’s lead to enact bans and restrictions of their own.
Beyond Southeast Asia
Following the bans and restrictions in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, and India, imports to those countries dropped, according to research by Greenpeace East Asia1. However, the patchwork nature of individual country bans means that plastic waste flows shifted to other countries, including Indonesia and Turkey. Furthermore, after steep drops after the bans, data in the last quarter of 2018 suggests that imports in Malaysia, Thailand, and Taiwan are beginning to tick up again. Maintaining the bans in the absence of international regulation in the plastic waste trade requires vigilant enforcement.
TIMELINE OF BANS/RESTRICTIONS
July 2017 China sends notice to the World Trade Organization that it will crack down on plastic scrap imports
January 2018 “National Sword” takes effect, China begins enforcing plastic scrap restrictions
March 2018 China announces that it will impose a more rigorous contamination standard for imports of 0.05%, down from 1.5%
April 2018 Thailand imposes a temporary ban on plastic scrap
May 2018 Thailand lifts temporary ban on plastic scrap
May 2018 Malaysia temporarily stops issuing permits to import plastic scrap
June 2018 Malaysia resumes issuing plastic scrap permits
July 2018 Vietnam says it will stop issuing new licenses for waste imports and crack down on illegal shipments of paper, plastic and metal
July 2018 China announces that it will ban all imports of “solid waste” by the end of 2019
August 2018 Malaysia announces three-month freeze on issuing plastic waste permit
August 2018 Thailand announces an e-waste ban: it will ban imports of 432 types of scrap electronics and will take effect within 6 months
October 2018 Malaysia announces that it will take steps to limit the import of plastic waste and phase out imports of other types of plastic scrap (including “clean” plastic) within 3 years
October 2018 Thailand announces that it will permanently ban plastic imports by 2021
November 2018 Indonesian Industry Minister sends a letter to environment minister requesting that they lift the ban on importing plastic. Indonesia currently has a blanket ban on importing waste but not definitive rule on recyclable plastic, as well as lax customs inspections so plastic waste enters with shipments marked as recycling, or as mixed paper recycling
March 2019 India announces that it will ban all plastic scrap imports
April 2019 Vietnamese officials announce that they will bar all imports of plastic scrap by 2025
Turning Crisis Into Opportunity
On a soggy winter afternoon in January, 2019, local school children, teachers and zero waste advocates gathered at the steps of city hall in Berkeley, California to call for their representatives to pass a historic piece of legislation that would be a giant step forward for reducing plastic waste in the city. The Disposable Free Dining ordinance mandates reusable foodware at restaurants for dining in, cutting the use of disposable utensils, plates, and cups, and slaps a 25 cent surcharge on disposable to-go containers, which must be certified compostable.
While some cities are wringing their hands helplessly in the face of China’s policy, community advocates in the city of Berkeley saw the ban as an opportunity to take action to reduce single-use plastic. Thanks to their efforts, the Disposable Free Dining ordinance passed unanimously in the city council, and implementation has already begun.
In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, one of the ordinance’s chief architects, Martin Bourque of the Ecology Center, and Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, wrote, “The ordinance does not simply ban plastic foodware, leaving businesses to replace it with other throwaway materials: It rejects throwaway culture altogether.”1 Bourque and others hope that this ordinance will be replicated in more and more places, as communities around the world lift up their voices to demand a future where nothing, and no one, is disposable.
The plastic waste problem is complex, dynamic, and changing rapidly. Many actors can take important steps to safeguard human health and the environment, including the following actions:
Governments should take collective action through the United Nations and binding international agreements to address the production, export, recycling, and disposal of plastic.
Developing countries should impose bans on importing plastic waste to prevent the dumping of waste from high-income countries on poor and under-resourced communities.
The private sector, having created the plastic problem, is in the best position to quickly address it. Redesigning products, packaging, and delivery systems to eliminate the use of single-use plastic products and packaging is the ultimate solution to plastic pollution.
Local and national governments must prioritize source reduction through bans on problematic plastic products and packaging and by mandating Extended Producer Responsibility.
Governments should make rights for waste pickers and recycling workers central to system reform. The economic incentives to accept plastic waste are a pervasive force that speaks to a larger failure to address poverty and ensure decent livelihoods for everyone.
Governments must prohibit the burning of plastic, whether in the open, in waste incinerators, in cement kilns, in plastic-to-fuel operations, in makeshift furnaces as fuel, or in landfill fires. Shutting off the plastic waste trade by itself is insufficient if poor and marginalized communities continue to host polluting disposal technologies.
Exporting countries must take responsibility for their plastic reduction and recycling domestically. Investment in domestic recycling infrastructure should achieve high environmental and social outcomes and prevent further exports. However, plastic recycling should not be used as justification for further single-use plastic production but as a pathway towards zero waste.