As you may know, China has been working to reduce their carbon footprint big time and while that is a good thing it puts us in a pickle in several ways. You see China not only processes their wast but until recently they have also processed the waste of several other countries.
A study published in the journal Science Advances recently put this change into perspective and predicted that at the current level if no change is noted by the time 2030 rolls around we will have accumulated around 111 million metric tons of stranded plastic waste. Because of the rapid growth and disposal of plastic materials solid waste management systems are not as simple as they sound.
The results of this study are as follows:
Global annual imports and exports of plastic waste began to rapidly increase in 1993, having grown 723 and 817% in 2016, respectively (Fig. 1). In 2016 alone, about half of all plastic waste intended for recycling (14.1 million MT) was exported by 123 countries, with China taking most of it (7.35 million MT) from 43 different countries (Fig. 2) (9–13). Since it began reporting in 1992, China has imported 106 million MT of plastic waste, making up 45.1% of all cumulative imports (Table 1). Collectively, China and Hong Kong have imported 72.4% of all plastic waste. However, Hong Kong acts as an entry port into China, with most of the plastic waste imported to Hong Kong (63%) going directly to China as an export in 2016. With the projected BAU Chinese import data, an estimated cumulative 111 million MT of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030 (Fig. 3). The displaced plastic waste is equal to nearly half (47%) of all plastic waste that has been imported globally since reporting began in 1988.
High Income (HIC) countries have overwhelmingly been the primary exporters of plastic waste since 1988, contributing to 87% of all exports and valued at $71 billion USD (Table 1 and table S1). Imports of plastic waste are almost evenly split between HIC and Upper Middle Income (UMI) countries, which collectively account for 96% of all imports and are valued at $106 billion USD (Table 1 and table S1). All of the top 10 countries exporting plastic waste are HIC, except for Mexico (UMI) ranking fifth. Seven of the top 10 countries importing plastic waste are HIC as well, except for China (first), India (ninth), and other Asia not elsewhere specified (see note # in Table 1). If taken collectively, then the EU-28 would be the top exporter.
Regionally, EAP (East Asia and Pacific) countries are characterized as the leading exporters of plastic waste; however, this is because of the large flow of exports from Hong Kong to China (fig. S5). Excluding Hong Kong, ECA (Europe and Central Asia) countries lead in exporting (for example, Germany, UK, and Netherlands), contributing to 32% ($27.6 billion USD) of all exports, followed by NA countries (United States and Canada) contributing to 14% ($14.3 billion USD) of exports (see footnote ∥ in Table 1 and table S2). EAP countries have dominated the import of plastic waste, having imported 75% ($83.3 billion USD) of plastic waste imports since 1988 (table S2). Collectively, the nation members of the OECD have contributed to 64% ($57.4 billion USD) of all exports, suggesting that the trade of plastic waste may largely be occurring between OECD and EAP countries (see note 2 in table S2). Furthermore, 33 of 35 OECD countries are considered HIC, 90% of the top 10 exporting countries are members of the OECD, and 23 of 36 EAP countries are low- or middle-income countries. These findings are consistent with historical trends of waste management practices in which low- and middle-income countries often import waste material for recycling (14). Consequently, wealthier nations, with more robust waste management infrastructure, are sending plastic waste to countries that are still developing economically with less-developed waste management infrastructure. Relatively high domestic management costs in exporting countries versus the cheaper processing fees in China have driven the trends illustrated here (for example, it is often cheaper to transport recycled materials by ship to China than it is to transport domestically by truck or rail) (15). In addition, exporting countries have preserved solid waste management capacity by sending waste to China where there are progressive environmental policies related to circular economy (for example, Environmental Protection Law, Circular Economy Promotion Law, etc.) (16); however, implementation of these policies has lagged, largely because of the top-down approach that has been taken, which lacks social and environmental indicators supporting market-based policy and public participation (16, 17).
Of the four polymer groups, the “other plastics” group is the most commonly traded plastic waste comprising a cumulative 131 million MT imported ($61.5 billion USD) and 123 million MT exported ($50.4 billion USD) traded between 1988 and 2016, followed by PE, which has had 67 million MT exported ($25.5 billion USD) and 71 million MT imported ($33.2 billion USD) since 1988 (fig. S6). Within this time period, China has imported primarily other plastics and PE (fig. S7). Excluding Hong Kong, the United States is the leading exporter of PVC and other plastics. Germany is the leading exporter of PE, and Japan is the leading exporter of PS. Each of these countries remains in the list of top five cumulative exporters for all four polymer groups. China is the leading importer of three of four polymer groups (table S3), with Hong Kong leading China in importing PS.
This basically meaning we are all screwed if we don’t figure things out. UN Comtrade data alone cannot necessarily accurately portray what is happening or is to come but through this study, we have found lots of unanswered questions. We need to work hard to develop our internal recycling markets as quickly as we can. The share that China usually takes is not going to be able to be pushed on another country. The numbers just would not even out.
What do you think about all of this? With no other country willing or capable of taking our load on where will it go? We really need to work to figure means to deal with it on our own. Plastic is a headache that will not die off anytime soon.
(Image Via: Pixabay/Ben_Kerckx)