In 2018, the world entered a municipal waste management crisis. China stopped importing 24 contaminated recyclable materials, most notably plastic waste and unsorted paper. China also required stricter pre-shipment inspections to enforce existing laws, such as the import ban on electronic waste (e-waste). The Chinese government cited its need to protect public health and the environment, improve domestic waste management, and halt illegal waste imports.
China’s waste ban has created backlogs worldwide. Recycling companies in high-income countries are scrambling to divert shipments. Towns across North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia are sending recyclable material to incinerators and reversing landfill bans. Some municipalities are even cancelling recycling programs altogether, to avoid the steep rise in recycling costs.
Recycling Is Not Directly Linked to Waste Reduction.
By shutting its doors to contaminated waste, China is forcing many high-income countries to question their municipal waste management system, including recycling and consumption practices. Contrary to popular belief, recycling is not directly linked to waste reduction. We generate more waste today per person than ever before. In the United States, municipal waste generation has grown threefold even after recycling programs were introduced. High-income countries generate 3.5 times more waste per capita than lower-income countries—2.13 kg per day compared to 0.6 kg per day. Psychological experiments suggest that recycling programs may encourage more wasteful behavior because consumers do not see the hidden costs of recycling and feel falsely justified to consume more.
While the global recycling industry has grown to generate over $300 billion in annual revenue, most recycling businesses focus on quantity, not quality, of recyclable materials. Many recycling programs have switched from recycling at-source to single-stream recycling, allowing consumers to dump all recyclables into one bin for later sorting at industrial facilities. Single-stream recycling has increased the volume of recyclable material, but resulted in lower quality and higher contamination. As one recycling expert explained, it is impossible to unscramble an egg.
How Green is Recycling?
Environmentally-conscious consumers assume that recyclable materials will be processed in the same environmentally-conscious manner. However, most of the world’s recycling is exported to lower-income countries, where recycling is cheaper to process due to weak law enforcement and informal sector recycling with no pollution controls. For example, the cost of recycling a computer monitor is ten times cheaper in China. Eighty-six percent of China’s e-waste goes to informal sector recycling. Workers earn $1.50 per day, dismantle components by hand, burn wires in open air, and extract metals in acid wash without safety equipment or wastewater treatment systems.
The global recycling industry has also been infiltrated by organized crime, smuggling hazardous and unrecyclable waste to lower-income countries in Eastern and Central Europe, Asia and Africa. In 2000, the White House Intelligence Council estimated that international waste smuggling generated $10-12 billion per year. A recent two-year inspection of major British ports found 50 percent of export shipments to be illegal. Interpol found that common methods include mixing illegal waste with legitimate shipments, mislabeling waste as recyclable material, forging paperwork, and rerouting shipments at sea to uncertified destinations.
Exporting Recycling, Exporting Pollution?
China has become the world’s largest waste importer, while falling under the weight of its own domestic waste crisis. Until the 2018 ban, China was importing 56 percent of the world’s plastic waste (7.35 million tons in 2016) and over 70 percent of the world’s e-waste (350 million tons per year, despite the 2000 e-waste import ban). Meanwhile, with growing wealth and a population of over 1.3 billion, China recently surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s largest waste generator, producing about 189 million tons of domestic municipal waste each year. However, formal waste collection systems reach only 20 percent of municipal waste in China.
Heavy metals and other pollutants contaminate one-fifth of all Chinese farmland, 40 percent of rivers, and 90 percent of urban groundwater supplies. The Chinese government estimates that 200 million rural residents have no access to clean drinking water. The European Union acknowledged that illegal e-waste exports from Europe were adding economic, environmental, and health burdens on China—ranging from the additional cost of building alternative drinking water supplies to poor neurological development in more than 80,000 Chinese children from toxic chemical exposure.
Will the Ripple Effect of China’s Waste Ban Improve the Global Recycling System?
Although China’s waste ban follows two decades of laws and regulations limiting unusable waste imports, the 2018 ban is the most forceful policy so far. In 2017, after the ban was announced but before it entered into force, Chinese authorities investigated 286 criminal cases involving 866,800 tons of illegally-imported waste and imposed sanctions on more than 800 companies.
The ban created a ripple effect, beginning in Asia but tangible worldwide. As recycling businesses diverted their shipments, many countries were ill-prepared to receive the sudden influx of waste. Many Chinese plastic recyclers relocated to Southeast Asia, often operating without permits, to melt plastic scrap and ship higher-quality plastic pellets back to China. Plastic waste imports in 2018 increased by 1,370 percent in Thailand, 200 percent in Vietnam, and 56 percent in Indonesia from the previous year. Within six months, Malaysia became the world’s largest importer of plastic waste, receiving half a million tons of plastic waste. Low-income countries in other regions such as Mexico and Turkey also witnessed a steep rise in waste imports. Poland reported 63 manmade fires at illegal waste dumps, linked to “garbage mafias” who could no longer export to China.
Diverted shipments often included unrecyclable waste. Vietnamese officials discovered shipments of unrecyclable plastic and e-waste mislabeled as recyclable material. In Thailand, authorities even found radioactive nuclear waste en route to India. The Malaysian government tried but could not return unrecyclable waste to countries of origin because shipments lacked tracking information.
Many Asian countries are now raising higher bars to restrict waste imports. Malaysia issued import levies, announced a three-year plan to phase out imported plastic waste, suspended import licenses, and cut off electricity and water to illegal recycling operations. Vietnam stopped issuing waste import licenses until further notice. Thailand announced it will ban some e-waste and all plastic waste imports by 2021.
High-income countries are resorting to short-term solutions. Europe, Japan and Australia are incinerating more waste. The United States and Canada are sending more recyclable materials to landfills. Landfill bans are being suspended to allow for disposal of recyclable materials, ranging from paper to plastic. Many municipalities are charging higher fees for recycling and fines for recycling contamination. Some municipalities have cancelled recycling programs altogether.
The United Nations Environment Program predicts that China’s waste ban could spur new investment in better domestic recycling facilities and product designs to maximize recyclable content. In October 2018, the European Union passed a ban on single-use plastic products such as cutlery, straws and cotton swabs, effective 2021. That same month, 250 organizations including multinational companies pledged to manufacture only plastic packaging that is fully recyclable, compostable, or reusable by 2025.
Within China, the government is trying to reduce waste at-source. The government set a 35 percent target recycling rate for urban household waste by 2020. The government also announced the Extended Producer Responsibility policy, requiring manufacturers make major advances in environment-friendly product design and increase the use of recycled materials, particularly in electronics, automobiles, lead acid batteries, and packaging products. Since 2011, the Chinese government has provided subsidies for domestic recycling of electronics, with mandatory contribution from manufacturers and importers.
In 2019, the Chinese government will review amendments to the 1995 Solid Waste Law, which may impose new liabilities for waste generators for pollution discharge and third-party services in waste transport and disposal.
Beyond China, major waste-generating nations in North America and Europe will have to choose one of two paths in 2019: improve domestic recycling practices and invest in new manufacturing design to reduce waste at-source, or continue to export our pollution to a dwindling pool of recipient countries.
To avoid the missing links exposed by China’s waste ban, the global recycling system needs more targeted and collaborative actions among nation states and private sectors, beyond each nation-state’s unilateral efforts.