Western nations are currently at a crossroads regarding the management of plastic waste. Increased usage of the ubiquitous material over the last several decades, alongside insufficient recycling capacity in EU nations, has resulted in the waste now being traded worldwide, alongside being incinerated or ending up in landfill. The main bulk of this waste previously made its way to Asian countries including China.
China and its neighbouring nations began placing blanket bans on the import of a range of solid wastes, including post-consumer plastics from across the globe, in 2018. Significantly, until that point, China was the largest importer of waste plastics, accounting for approximately 56% of global waste, including that from the United States, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Following the introduction of the ban, exports of waste to China fell by around 97%.
The waste ban was implemented in China to enable more stringent policies that would eradicate the import of poor-quality waste which could not be recycled. A study by the University of Georgia has predicted that with this policy in force, by 2030, 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced. This means more robust recycling programmes must be developed in the western world and a rethink of the use and design of plastic products is needed to deal with waste responsibly.
Passing the burden to smaller communities
As a result of China’s plastic waste import ban, smaller nations in Asia, particularly Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, began to suffer from catastrophic waste issues. According to a report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Greenpeace, local communities in these countries experience contaminated water supplies, crop death and respiratory illnesses due to exposure to the burning of illegal plastic waste.
These countries didn’t have the resources, personnel or leverage to enforce bans they had implemented. The shortage of resources subsequently led to the illegal import of waste and environmentally damaging methods of disposal. A report by the Malaysian government found waste from the UK, Germany, Australia and the US was entering the country illegally whilst being declared as ‘other imported goods and materials’.
Thailand as a result, moved to announce it will ban all foreign plastic waste imports by 2021, with Vietnam agreeing to do the same by 2025. Malaysia is also coming down hard on illegal plants that are burning plastic waste without an official permit from the government.
In the long run, it is hoped that the waste import bans put in place in the Asian nations will be of benefit as they force Western governments to improve their local waste infrastructures by necessity. However, in the short term, poorer countries continuing to take materials are feeling the consequence of the bans as they deal with a build-up of waste, lower price values for imported goods, and health ramifications for those living around dumping sites.
What is happening today in response to the situation?
While the Asian waste ban initially caused significant ramifications for those neighbouring countries and the western nations exporting their excess waste, the move will ultimately provide long-term change in the way waste is handled globally.
Since the implementation of the bans, the UK government has taken significant steps to overhaul its current waste infrastructure. The end of 2018 saw the government create the Resources and Waste Strategy for England, which sets out how the country plans to double resource productivity and eliminate avoidable waste of all kinds (including plastic waste) by 2050. The strategy aims to preserve the region’s stock of material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy. The goal is to minimise the damage caused to the natural environment by reducing and managing waste safely, legally and responsibly.
In the 2020 Budget, the UK government also declared its intention to introduce a new tax on plastic packaging production. The charge will apply to businesses that produce or import plastic packaging that incorporates less than 30% recycled content, taking effect from April 2022. The tax intends to reduce the use of virgin plastic material, in favour of post-consumer recyclate, supporting the circular rather than linear economy.
Building on this proposal, The Environment Bill was introduced in 2019 and will not only make businesses and manufacturers pay the full cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste, but householders will also see a simplification of the existing recycling system, which many deem too complex and fragmented at present.
The effect of the Asian waste bans clearly had a major impact on Western nations which exported waste, and there have been devastating consequences for smaller neighbouring countries in the region too. Many experts believe, however, that the waste ban implemented in China will benefit the environment in the long term. Nations are rethinking their internal recycling infrastructure strategies seeking to improve the management of plastic waste locally – whether redesigning products in the first place to boost recycling rates, investing in collection and recycling capacity or driving product to incineration for energy recovery to power towns and cities.
While the Asian waste ban has had a dramatic effect on the global waste management problem, it is hoped that its effect will drive positive, sustainable change toward a more collective global circular economy.