Introduction of the ban on imported solid waste, coming to force in China as of January 1, 2018, means the country will be importing a lot less of foreign waste material, and replacing it with recycled material collected in its own domestic market instead.
China’s dominance in manufacturing means that for years it has been the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials. The country’s hunger for plastic, the most difficult waste material to dispose of, has spawned a lucrative industry where plastic waste was purchased from the international market and turned into raw materials for local manufactures. In 2016 alone, China imported 7.3m tons of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, EU (Italy, France and Germany), the US and Japan.
As a result of the actions taken by China, many developed countries, previously heavily reliant on their Asian counterpart for off-shoring their dirt, are now facing serious recycling challenges. After the ban the waste refused by China will be exported mostly to Southeast Asian (notably India) and South American countries, as well as the Middle East. Demand there is growing, but not at the rate needed to replace what has been previously sent to China. If no action is taken by the developed countries to establish their own recycling infrastructure and forge stronger links with their domestic manufacturing industries to utilize more recycled waste, some materials, especially the lower grade ones, will have nowhere to go.
While the alternatives to exporting waste exist, they are not ideal due to rising concerns about the environmental pollution they cause. Therefore looking at the consumer side and their awareness about the problems that extensive use of plastic can create can be the best way forward.
Time will show if the Chinese ban will be a short-term challenge that can be successfully overcome in the long-term, or if it will cause a serious environmental threat.