Global plastic trade disrupted

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2018

As China bans plastic waste imports, large amounts of the material are displaced and the need to reduce consumption highlighted. Kathryn Allen reports. 

China’s recent ban on imports of nonindustrial plastic waste could see an estimated 111Mt of this waste displaced by 2030. This is according to a study, The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade, from a team at the University of Georgia, USA, who warn that action on a global scale is needed to reduce the amount of non-recyclable materials produced, redesign plastic products, and fund domestic plastic waste management.  

The study acknowledges a lacking global standard for classifying countries with sufficient infrastructure to handle imported plastic waste, and calls for a global agreement on the use and management of plastic materials, with the suggestion that strict liability be applied to plastic waste, holding producers and exporters accountable.   

Amy Brooks, Doctoral Student in the New Materials Institute, College of Engineering, University of Georgia, USA, and first author of the study, told Materials World, ‘Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get global consensus on issues like this because of the complexities of socio-cultural differences and economic and political climates. But, we are eventually going to need fundamental changes in our relationship with plastic, and there is no doubt that this is a manmade problem that must be mitigated. Global agreements therefore may take time.’

Brooks adds, ‘our study found that 89% of the plastic waste being exported has been polymers of plastic found in single-use plastic items,’ suggesting that reducing consumption of these single-use products – such as water bottles, bags, and straws – is a way to reduce overall generation of plastic waste.

The trade in plastic

To estimate the amount of plastic waste displaced, the team compiled 28 years of data (1988–2016) from the United Nations Comtrade Database on the imports and exports of four polymer classifications – polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, and others. Estimates of the amount of plastic waste displaced by China’s ban were calculated using a business-as-usual scenario. 

The study found that high-income countries have produced 87% of all exports since 1988. Data suggests that this trade of plastic waste largely occurs between member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and East Asia and Pacific (EAP) countries. EAP countries – of which 23 of the total 36 are low- and middle-income countries – have received 75% of plastic waste imports since 1988. The paper claims that, since 33 of the 35 OECD countries are considered high-income, the findings match historical trends of low- and middle-income countries importing waste for recycling, despite their less developed waste management infrastructure. 

In the case of China, cheaper processing costs, and high domestic management costs in exporting countries, have resulted in increased imports. Since 1992, China has imported 106Mt of plastic waste. The country is still developing its waste management infrastructure, and the Georgia team claims that an estimated 1.3–3.5Mt of plastic enter the ocean from the Chinese coastline every year. In 2016, imported waste added 10.8% to the estimated 60.9Mt generated by China. 

Displaced plastic 

China’s ban prohibits eight types of plastic waste from consumer goods, including polymers of polyethylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), bales of PET plastic bottles, and aluminium plastic film. Industrial plastic waste, meeting Chinese control standards, is still accepted.  

The Georgia team warns that this restriction to legal trade could increase the informal, illegal flow of plastic waste and result in other EAP countries, which do not have sufficient infrastructure, receiving the displaced waste. 

Brooks said, ‘There are a few potential destinations for this displaced plastic, and we’ve seen reports of these happening over the last six months since the ban was implemented. First, plastic waste has been accumulating at facilities where they are either having to send it to landfill or potentially incineration. Second, there is the possibility that the plastic waste will be sent to other countries like Vietnam or Thailand that may not necessarily have the waste management infrastructure to properly handle the waste.’

In June 2018, Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s editorially independent journalism team, reported that in the first three months of 2018, UK exports of plastic waste to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Poland increased – prior to these countries introducing restrictions. Pakistan, India, Turkey, and Indonesia also saw an increase in plastic waste imports (see Materials World, March 2018). 

‘I’d like to think that the ban is a wake-up call for exporting countries – many high income, who have long relied on exporting plastic waste to China and the EAP region in the first place – to begin increasing domestic management of plastic waste,’ Brooks adds. ‘This can come from local and national initiatives that reduce use of plastic items (through bans or levies), from improved waste management and litter capture infrastructure, and from investment in alternative, bio-benign materials and better recycling technology.’

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