Until March of this year, China was by far the world’s largest importer and recycler of scrap metals, plastic, and paper. According to one study, the country received 56 percent of global scrap-plastic exports in 2014. But increasing restrictions and bans on what China’s environment ministry calls “foreign garbage” may change all that, potentially redirecting the cross-border flows of scrap that underpin recycling markets worldwide.
Cargo ships carry goods from China to Western countries and then carry scrap back in a process known as “reverse haulage.” China’s booming industries are hungry for plastics they do not yet produce at home, so they willingly pay for high-quality imported scrap to reuse. For U.S.-based waste collectors, selling scrap to China is cheaper than having it recycled at home.
China’s plastics-recycling rate, 22 percent in 2013, is far higher than the United States’ annual average of 9 percent. However, it is not clear under what conditions plastics are recycled in China, or what happens to the rest. Some likely is diverted to subpar incinerators for energy recovery or winds up in the oceans.
Chinese leaders have concerns about the nation’s environmental crisis and image as “the world’s dump site.” On March 1, 2018, therefore, they enacted stringent restrictions on imports of 24 kinds of scrap, including paper and plastic.
Although the global scrap industry is fighting back, China’s actions are forcing other industrialized nations to rethink their dependence on overseas disposal. The United States has not built a new high-quality plastics-recycling facility since the early 2000s, and very few of its existing plants can cost-effectively process harder-to-recycle, often dirty postconsumer plastics. Moves are under way to improve U.S. capacity, but they will take years to implement. In the meantime, plastic scrap is already being diverted to other ports in Southeast Asia, where its fate is unclear.
Mass production of bioplastics is a long-term solution, but is probably years off. Other priorities include expanding markets for recycled products and improving consumer education. In my view, losing China as a primary consumer of Western scrap could and should finally spur other industrialized nations to take more responsibility for the waste they generate.
— Kate O'Neill
Kate O’Neill is a professor of global environmental politics in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM). A longer version of this article originally appeared in the online publication The Conversation.