Date posted: 29/05/2019 5 min read

Unfantastic plastic

China’s ban on importing plastic waste has spurred action on responsible plastic recycling, but more needs to be done.

In Brief

  • From 1992-2018, China imported 106 million tonnes of plastic waste from advanced economies. These imports were banned in 2017.
  • Of the 8 billion tonnes of plastic ever produced, just 9% has been recycled.
  • There is now 100 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans, with 80-90% of that coming from land-based sources.

By Chantelle Herro

China’s ban on importing plastic waste for recycling may be the intervention the world needs to break a devastating addiction. There is more than 6 billion tonnes of plastic waste in the world. By 2050, it’s predicted there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, by weight.

Back in 2015, it was estimated that of all the plastic ever made, 9% was recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was in landfills or the environment. But with China pushing responsibility for dealing with plastic waste back on the nations that produce it, other solutions may finally be found.

On 10 May 2019, 187 countries – but not the US – agreed to a deal at the United Nations Basel Convention that restricts shipments of plastic waste to poorer countries.

Previously, businesses could send their lower quality plastic waste to private entities in these developing countries without any government approvals. And since China’s plastic waste ban, countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have been flooded with wealthier industrialised nations’ plastic recycling, according to The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

The UN amendment means exporting countries will have to obtain consent from countries to receive contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste. The upshot is that wealthy countries will have to monitor where their plastic waste goes when it leaves their borders. The new rules will take a year to come into force.

While the agreement is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the plastic problem. The United Nations Environment Program estimates 100 million tonnes of plastic is now found in the oceans, with 80-90% of that coming from land-based sources.

Figure 1. “China’s plastic imports”China's Plastic ImportsSources: Rethinking Single Use Plastics, Citibank, August 2018; “Plastic recycling is broken, here’s how to fix it”;   

Figure 2. “Plastic gone to waste”“Plastic gone to waste” Sources: Plastic Pollution, Finding Solutions, HSBC Global Research, September 2018;

Figure 3. “Lifespan”“Lifespan” Source: The Balance Small Business.

Figure 4. “Plastic made each year”Plastic Made Each YearSource: “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade” by Amy Brooks et al, Science Advances, 20 Jun 2018: Vol. 4, no. 6

Figure 5.  “54 years of the plastic bag” “54 years of the plastic bag” sectionSource: Rethinking Single Use Plastics, Citibank, August 2018.

Figure 6. “Plastics on the go” “Plastics on the go” sectionSource:The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics and catalysing action, Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2016.

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