Year’s End Update on the Global Plastic Recycling Crisis
Ever since China imposed a total stop to its importation of plastic waste materials in January 2021, developed countries have since scrambled to look for ways to mitigate the effects of the impending global plastic recycling crisis. Some countries tried to look for other takers of their plastic waste while others sought ways to deal with the problem head-on at home. Despite their efforts, it did little to stop the imminent plastic recycling crisis that resulted from China’s refusal to accept more plastic waste.
How the Plastic Recycling Crisis Started
For more than a quarter of a century, developed countries relied on developing Asian countries to take in their plastic trash for a fee. This has been the norm for decades despite the inability and lack of facilities in the poorer Asian countries to manage the waste.
China has been the biggest taker of the world’s plastic and paper scrap, accepting some 45 percent, or around 100 million metric tons, of the world’s refuse. Due to its economy that started growing exponentially decades ago, China’s need for raw materials made them the biggest buyer of the world’s recyclables. However, there has been a growing concern regarding contamination in some of the waste materials it was importing. Finally, when the majority of the imported scrap showed high levels of hazardous substances coupled with the country’s antipollution crackdown, the Chinese government declared that it would no longer take in plastic, metal and paper scrap.
How the Ban Affected the Developed World
The countries that were so used to and dependent on exporting their waste materials to China were left exposed at the sudden policy change in China. Plastic and paper materials have since been piling up in ports and recycling centers all around the world. Some have been sending their excess plastic in landfills, which was the very thing that they were trying to avoid in sending their scrap overseas.
One study indicates that China’s new policy could displace more than 100 million tons of plastic waste by 2030. Without a backup plan in place, countries who have been dependent on China as a repository for their plastic waste have since been drawing up plans on how to deal with the crisis.
U.S. Seeking Immediate Solution
The United States is one of the nations more severely affected by the Chinese ban, being the world’s largest exporters of domestic waste. One good thing that came out of the plastic recycling crisis, however, is that it revealed the vulnerability of the U.S. when it comes to managing its domestic plastic waste. Such a revelation presents an opportunity for the U.S. government get more serious and focus more on recycling at home.
Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that of all the plastic materials that come from the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste stream, only 9.1 percent went to recycling in 2015. Approximately 15 percent of it went to incinerators for energy production, and the remaining 74 percent went to landfills. These numbers do not include the 26.7 million tons of plastic that the U.S. has been shipping out of the country from 1988 to 2016.
The study on the plastic recycling crisis shows that 110 million metric tons of plastic trash will be displaced by 2030 unless the crisis is averted. Being “displaced” means that the plastic trash will likely end up in landfills, oceans, dumps and anywhere where it shouldn’t be in the first place. It is, therefore, imperative that governments work together to find a lasting, acceptable and sustainable solution to the plastic recycling crisis.