Details of the True Impact of China’s Ban on Plastic Waste Imports

Over 100 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced because of the policy. (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Over 100 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced because of the policy. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

While recycling is often touted as the solution to the large-scale production of plastic waste, upwards of half of the plastic waste intended for recycling is exported from higher income countries to other nations, with China historically taking the largest share.

But in 2017, China passed the “National Sword” policy, which permanently bans the import of non-industrial plastic waste as of January 2018. Now, scientists from the University of Georgia have calculated the potential global impact of this legislation and how it might affect efforts to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the world’s landfills and natural environment.

The findings were published in the journal Science AdvancesJenna Jambeck, associate professor in UGA’s College of engineering and co-author of the study, said:

Global annual imports and exports of plastic waste skyrocketed in 1993, growing by about 800 percent through 2016. Since reporting began in 1992, China has accepted about 106 million metric tons of plastic waste, which accounts for nearly half of the world’s plastic waste imports.

China and Hong Kong have imported more than 72 percent of all plastic waste, but most of the waste that enters Hong Kong — about 63 percent — is exported to China. High-income countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas account for more than 85 percent of all global plastic waste exports.

The animated graphic above shows how many metric tons of plastic waste were imported or exported by select countries from 1996 to 2016. It also includes an estimation of how much plastic waste will be displaced should current trends continue to 2030 (Image: Lindsay Robinson).

Taken collectively, the European Union is the top exporter. Amy Brooks, a doctoral student in UGA’s College of Engineering and lead author of the paper, said:

For exporters, cheap processing fees in China meant that shipping waste overseas was less expensive than transporting the materials domestically via truck or rail. Jambeck went on to explain:

The import of plastic waste to China contributed an additional 10 to 13 percent of plastic waste on top of what they were already having a difficult time managing because of rapid economic growth before the import ban took effect, Jambeck explained, saying:

Provided by: University of Georgia [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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