One of the only redeeming virtues of single-use plastic—besides its convenience—is the idea that all those used yogurt cups, water bottles and coffee lids can be tossed into the recycling bin to live another day as a park bench or even a T-shirt. But that whole feel-good system has hinged on one factor: China's willingness to import and deal with the developed world’s massive mountains of plastic. But China banned the import of most plastic waste on December 31, 2017. Now, reports Brian Kahn at Earther, a new study shows that because of the ban, plastic is piling up, and by 2030 111 million metric tons of plastic will be “displaced,” a euphemism for going into landfills, ditches, the ocean and anywhere but a recycled park bench. The United States alone will have 37 million extra metric tons of plastic waste to contend with.
According to a press release announcing the new research, several factors caused China to give up on its plastic importing. “Plastic waste was once a fairly profitable business for China, because they could use or resell the recycled plastic waste,” says Amy Brooks of the University of Georgia and lead author of the study in Science Advances. “But a lot of the plastic China received in recent years was poor quality, and it became difficult to turn a profit. China is also producing more plastic waste domestically, so it doesn't have to rely on other nations for waste.”
The result is that nations around the world that relied on China to take their plastic trash are now stuck with the stuff and do not have the infrastructure to recycle it. Darryl Fears and Kate Furby at The Washington Post report that the change has already had impacts on the United States, with states including Massachusetts and Oregon lifting restrictions on plastic waste in landfills to deal with the problem. In the coming years, many more Americans may see recycling programs screech to a halt. “It will impact recycling programs across the country,” Ben Harvey, owner and president of E.L. Harvey & Sons Recycling Services in Westborough, Massachussets, tells WaPo. “If there’s no place for this stuff to go, what’s the sense of collecting it? We’re going to look at the programs and say why are we collecting it, it’s not a commodity anymore. It’s a big thing. It’s a scary thing.”
There are some loopholes in the Chinese ban, reports Ellen Airhart at Wired. China’s ban covers potentially contaminated plastic, like mayonnaise jars that weren’t washed out or water bottles with chewed gum in them. However, China still allows bales of plastic with less than 0.5 percent contamination in for recycling. The company that deals with San Francisco’s plastic waste, for instance, has slowed down its sorting line to drop its contamination level from roughly 5 percent to under 1 percent, which allows the city to keep sending its Fiji bottles back overseas. But, Airhart points out, not all domestic waste handlers have the ability or money to reduce their contamination levels.
And there are no reasonable alternative destinations for the trash, either. “There’s not really another huge main hub where this material has to go,” Jenna Jambeck, a study co-author also from the University of Georgia, tells WaPo. Some nations like Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia do recycle plastic, but they don’t have the infrastructure to shoulder China’s previous load. “There isn’t another individual country that has the capacity that China had to take the material.”
The ban is causing ripples in the U.S. recycling industry, reports the Associated Press. The National Recycling Coalition realeased a statement saying the industry needs to fundamentally shift how it communicates with the public and how it collects and processes recyclables. “We need to look at new uses for these materials," coalition executive director Marjorie Griek says. “And how do you get manufacturers to design a product that is more easily recyclable.”
Brooks tells Airhart that she hopes the international community pays attention to the study. “My dream would be that this is a big enough wake up call to drive international agreements” to regulate disposable plastics, she says.
There are some signs that nations around the world are starting to confront single-use plastics. India recently announced a plan to ban single-use plastics by 2022 and a recent United Nations report shows 50 nations around the world are making efforts to ban plastic bags, Styrofoam and other non-biodegradable items. Britain, too, has recently announced a ban on single-use plastic, and will likely eliminate things like plastic straws and cotton swabs next year.
In the U.S., the federal government is not taking the lead on the plastics issue, but several cities have implemented plastic bag bans or taxes and several are considering straw bans. Companies are taking up the issue too, with McDonald’s set to test alternatives to plastic straws later this year, though the company's shareholders aren't too keen on the idea.