China isn’t cleaning up our mess anymore, and the world can’t handle it

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FOR years, China has acted as the world’s dumping ground for recyclable goods, taking a reported 45 million tonnes of our plastic bottles, tired old clothes, and cereal boxes in 2016 alone.

But Beijing has decided that their nation will no longer be the world’s trash can, imposing a ban on imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste that kicked in on Jan 1, 2018 – and the world is not coping.

After hazardous waste was found mixed in with the “foreign garbage” countries were shipping over to China, Environmental Protection Ministry said no more. Notifying the World Trade Organization back in July, Beijing said that, in order to “protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health,” there would be a change in policy – essentially sticking two fingers up to the waste inundated nations of the west.

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The impact of this will be far-reaching. China is the dominant market for recycled plastic. There are concerns that much of the waste that China currently imports, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go.

This applies to countries across the world. In the EU, 87 percent of recycled plastic is exported to China. Japan and the US also rely on them with America exporting 1.42m tonnes of scrap plastics in 2016, worth an estimated US$495 million to China.


A man piles up styrofoam at a recycling yard at the edge of Beijing, China, on Sept 21, 2016. Source: Source/Thomas Peter/File Photo

This leaves much of the developed world with an environmental headache of colossal proportions. Thus far implementing an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to waste disposal, governments are now having to face up to the realities of their own plastic addiction, and it’s not pretty.

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Just one day into the ban, and the UK was already beginning to see a build-up of rubbish at recycling plants. This accumulation is expected to bring chaos for councils in the weeks ahead, according to the Guardian.

Even with months of warning, it seems governments have not taken the threat seriously and are now left floundering as the waste builds up. UK’s Environmental Secretary Michael Gove, by his own admission said, “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is … something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given it sufficient thought.”

The US is also in a state of panic; the country exports almost 33 percent of its recycling, nearly half of which goes to China. Employees at Oregon-based Rogue Waste Systems, now sit in a warehouse surrounded by stacks of unwanted recycling bales. Outside, employee parking spaces have been taken over by compressed cubes of sour cream containers, broken wine bottles and junk mail.

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With no environmentally sound systems in place, waste disposal companies are left with little choice but to find unsatisfactory alternatives, such as landfills or incinerators; both of which have a bad wrap, for good reason.

While the first few months of 2018 look set to be challenging for the global waste model, there is hope that China’s refusal to continue down this path may be the catalyst needed for the world to face up to its ever-growing thirst for consumption.

As Greenpeace East Asia communications officer Tom Baxter rightly says: “The world cannot continue with the current wasteful consumption model based on infinite growth in a finite world.”

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