A Plastic Recycling Revolution Is Brewing … in China

Employees work on plastic woven products at Yiyuan County on February 27, 2019 in Zibo, Shandong Province of China

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Why you should care

China is no longer taking the whole world’s trash, so it can now take care of its own.

Amid a bustling jumble sale in Beijing, one stand attracts more attention than others. Behind the tabletop display of metal razors with replaceable blades, metal straws and canvas bags, Carrie Yu, the stand’s owner, talks passionately about the benefits of a zero-waste lifestyle with the customers browsing the products on offer. Her company, the Bulk House, is China’s first zero-waste brand.  

China has long been seen as the villain in the story of global efforts to cut plastic pollution. Plastic bags are handed out with reckless abandon in shops in China. The country, until recently, bought 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste despite having no infrastructure in place to effectively process it. Garbage cans in the capital have a “General Waste” and “Recycling” slot that empty into the same bag. The country, which has long been a dumping ground for the rest of the world’s recycling, in 2017 decided to stop importing virtually all recyclables. But even since the ban, China’s population is still responsible for 28 percent of the world’s plastic pollution.

Campaigners like Yu, however, are beginning to encourage Chinese consumers to take a more environmentally responsible approach to their purchasing habits. The government, meanwhile, has ramped up efforts to deal with China’s mountains of waste.

In 2017, China saw metal and plastic recycling increase by 11 percent in one year. 

By comparison, U.S. recycling increased only 6.8 percent in the most recent five-year period for which figures are available. And the U.S. started from a lower base: In 2015, the U.S. plastics recycling rate was 9.1 percent, compared to China’s 2014 reported rate of 22 percent.

Since the ban, China has recycled 282 million tons of metal and plastic, according to the Ministry of Commerce. Prior to the ban, China took in 12.6 billion pounds of the world’s plastic waste a year. In the 12 months before restrictions came into effect, the United States exported 693 million metric tons of plastic waste to China. Germany was the top European exporter at 390 million tons. The U.K. sent two-thirds of its plastic waste to China, and Japan topped the list globally, exporting 842 million tons of plastic waste to its neighbor. In total, imported plastic waste used to swell China’s domestic waste figures by 10 to 13 percent, significantly impacting the amount of plastic waste making its way from China’s coast into the world’s oceans.

 

The 99 percent reduction in recyclable plastic imports in 2018 has created a supply void for China’s plastic processing industry, and to fill it, the government is focusing on responsibly processing the mountains of plastic waste China produces domestically. 

In January, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced a pilot scheme to establish 10 zero-waste cities. The purchasing habits, including sales of single-use plastics, and recycling infrastructure for the 10 undisclosed cities will be overhauled and tightly controlled in a bid to create a blueprint that can be rolled out across China from 2020. Officials have said the scheme will also focus on encouraging people to live environmentally friendly lifestyles and minimize waste. 

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In Binzhou, Shandong province, an enterprise has created an industrial cluster dominated by recycled polyester blankets, carpets, fabrics and conveyor belts, using waste plastic bottles. 

Source YOSHINORI KAGEYAMA / Barcroft Media via Getty

In line with other potentially disruptive shifts in China, economics is one of the major selling points of the push to embrace reuse and recycling. According to China’s People’s Daily newspaper, the value of the recycling industry in China could be worth more than $1 trillion — and account for 40 million new jobs — by 2030. 

Jeroen Dagevos, head of programs at Plastic Soup Foundation, an anti-plastic pollution NGO based in the Netherlands, says food packaging is one of the major hurdles. “The absolute reduction of packaging is very important because recycling of food packaging is extremely difficult as the material will most likely not turn into food packaging material again,” he says.  

Part of the newfound consumer concern for plastic waste in China is born out of the massive expansion of the country’s food-delivery sector. In 2017, it grew 65 percent from the previous year, with an overwhelming majority transporting the food in plastic containers placed inside plastic bags. The rapid expansion of China’s food delivery industry has opened many consumers’ eyes to the issue of single-use plastic. In a strangely specific stat, Mintel found four in every 10 Chinese breakfast consumers want to see their meals served in environmentally friendly packaging. 

For Yu, it’s all about the consumer mindset. “Lives [have become] so fast and so last-minute that the only way to the consumer is through single-use items,” she says. But when they talk to people now about a zero-waste lifestyle, the response is invariably positive. “Everyone has loved what we are doing.” 

The emergence of this anti-plastic pollution trend goes beyond a push for greater public awareness. In September 2018, Beijing-based scientists at the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced they had developed a plastic that degrades in seawater, offering an alternative for brands looking to fall in line with this consumer trend. So far, three companies have been granted permission to use the technology, meaning an annual production capacity of 75,000 tonnes. 

The combination of China refocusing some of its growing innovative scientific talent to the issue of plastic pollution and the emergence of an environmentally conscious consumer base means that the world’s second-largest economy, and soon-to-be largest consumer of fashion goods, can help drive a move away from single-use plastics. 

When China closed its doors to the world’s waste, much of the developed world panicked. Other nations, mainly in Asia, have done much to pick up the slack. Since China’s ban, Thailand’s plastic waste imports tripled, but they too recently announced restrictions similar to China’s. 

China undeniably had a head start thanks to a well-established industry set up to process the world’s plastic waste. And whether or not its vision for zero-waste cities will become a reality remains untested. But rather than finding new places to dump their plastic, the rest of the world could follow China’s lead in taking responsibility for its own waste.

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