What happens when the world’s largest importer of waste decides to say no?

According to Greenpeace, China was the dumping ground for more than half of the world’s trash before a ban came into being on December 31st, 2017. At its peak, China imported almost 9 metric tons of plastic scrap a year. China started importing waste in the 1980s to fuel a growing manufacturing sector benefiting from the development of waste processing and the recycling industry. However, improper handling and lack of effective supervision turned China into one of the world’s major polluters.

“This regulation will send shockwaves around the world and force many countries to tackle the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude we’ve developed towards waste.”
-Liu Hua, Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner

The surprise decision to ban the import of plastic waste by China has predominantly affected western countries and Japan, who, according to experts, are scrambling to find alternative options for their waste. According to some media reports, the European Union has begun to consider a tax on plastic usage. The UK has in the past looked to redirect its trash to Southeast Asia, while the US has asked China to reconsider its decision and lift the ban. Such responses are nowhere near long-term solutions to the new global order of waste management. Malaysia is increasingly becoming a major destination for the world’s recyclable plastic waste, with the country taking in hundreds of thousands of tonnes after China stopped accepting such refuse in 2018. Malaysia’s neighbour, Vietnam, also took in more over the same period, albeit just 71,220 tonnes or a 46 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2017. Thailand is another dumping spot growing in favour since China’s change in stance. These countries lack tools to effectively manage the waste they are accepting and some are contemplating similar restrictions to that of China.

Developed countries have so far only focused on short-term solutions by finding alternative markets in the developing world. Instead, governments should focus on increasing the quality of recycling, investing in onshore and offshore recycling markets and facilities, banning of single-use plastics, investing in alternative renewable sources, rather than looking for new markets and environment to exploit and plunder.


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