Last year China, previously the centre of the global recycling trade, abruptly imposed restrictions on imports of recyclable items. Could such a move force exporting countries to raise their recycling standards?

More than 600 million tonnes of recyclable items annually are handled by almost 1.6 million people worldwide who are active in the recycling industry, according to the Bureau of International Recycling

Since the introduction of curbside collection, a service provided to households to collect recyclables, the idea of recycling has been promoted as the environmental answer to the growing amounts of waste on the planet. 

Since the 1980s, it has been developed into a $200 billion industry globally. Buyers have lined up to purchase this rubbish and turn it into new products. The process can at times be remarkably profitable. But last year, all that changed.

China, previously the hub of the global recycling trade, abruptly shut its doors to the importation of recyclable items, citing the fact that large amounts of waste are “dirty” or even “hazardous” and that “this polluted China’s environment seriously”, as explained by the environment ministry in a notice to the World Trade Organization.

According to the International Solid Waste Association, nearly 60 percent of the world’s waste plastic was exported to China. Following Beijing’s crackdown on imports of waste plastic, which came into effect at the beginning of last year, exports fell by about 10 percent overall. 

Suddenly, the recyclables market collapsed. This is why China’s move has been regarded by many as a “catastrophe” with “devastating impact” on the global recycling industry.

With China’s new policy, also known as the Chinese National Sword, in place since the beginning of last year, much of the waste plastic has found its way to smaller markers in Southeast Asia instead, in countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. 

According to an analysis of data compiled by the Financial Times, Malaysia has become the world’s biggest importer of waste plastic. Vietnam saw its imports double, while exports of waste plastic to Indonesia rose by nearly 60 percent and Thailand saw the biggest percentage increase of all in the region. 

As imports have increased, Southeast Asian countries have been hit by a growing backlash of illegal recycling activities, and authorities have been making attempts to curb the amounts of waste they import. 

The authorities in these countries do not have the capacity to deal with such a large influx of waste and are already considering shutting their doors to imports. A rubbish trade war may be in the making as more and more countries are imposing restrictions.

The ripple effects of the Chinese National Sword are only now becoming apparent. As a consequence of China closing its borders to rubbish from the rest of the world, a wave of new investment in the recycling industry is coming. 

The burden of China refusing to be the world’s dumping ground has shifted to the developed world such as the United States and Europe. 

Countries in the developed world had been exporting much of their recyclable waste simply because they lacked the infrastructure, systems and recycling culture to efficiently process domestically. In the long term, China’s move will force the world to come up with bold global ideas to focus more on their own recycling capacities, spurring much-needed investment in domestic recycling facilities as well as innovation in plastic manufacturing. 

It will also bring attention to the need for a more sustainable circular economy, which reuses resources rather than consuming them.

According to an academic study, the world has generated more than 6.3 billion tonnes of waste plastic since the 1950s, making plastic one of the largest human-made materials on the planet. Of that volume, more than half was generated in the last decade. 

Therefore, China’s ban on imports has served as a wake-up call for the world. The European Union Commission has unveiled its plastics strategy last year, which notes that by 2030, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable. 

Major retailers around the world such as Iceland Foods, a British supermarket chain, are committing themselves to eliminate all plastic packaging completely by the end of 2023. In Australia, the government of New South Wales wants to invest $47.8 million to boost the domestic sorting, processing and recycling of waste. 

In short, there is an opportunity for the global recycling industry, ensuring less environmental damage and more innovation.

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