China’s recent ban on non-industrial plastic imports will be felt across the world. Scientists at the University of Georgia estimate the ban will displace more than 110 million tonnes of plastic waste.
The ban came into force in January 2018. By 2030 ‘about 111 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is going to be displaced because of the import ban,’ says Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia and principal investigator of the study. The enormous figure amounts to roughly 18 tonnes (around 1.3 million plastic bottles ) every minute.
The ban will upset the status quo in plastic recycling. Over the past 25 years, China has accepted nearly half of the world’s non-industrial plastic waste imports – around 106 million metric tonnes of plastic waste. The ban is projected to create an even larger figure of displaced plastic, over a shorter period of time. This is because plastic exportation has increased significantly since the 1990s. The researchers find that between 1993 and 2016 plastic export increased by 800 per cent.
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Many countries export plastic waste due to China’s low processing costs, meaning shipping the waste comes out cheaper than moving it terrestrially to domestic recycling plants. With the ban in place, countries will have to decide where to send the surplus. ‘Some of it could be diverted to other countries, but most of them lack the infrastructure to manage their own waste let alone the waste produced by the rest of the world,’ says Jambeck.
So far, only nine per cent of the plastic ever produced has been recycled. There are concerns that the new waste surplus is less likely to be recycled, particularly in countries lacking the infrastructure. Jambeck warns: ‘Without bold new ideas and system-wide changes, even the relatively low current recycling rates will no longer be met, and our previously recycled materials could now end up in landfills.’
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