The Issues and Impacts Associated with China's Plastic Ban

Outsourcing plastic recycling has been the standard for the US and other Western countries for the past few decades, with China serving as the predominant importer of this waste – until now. In recent years, China has implemented major restrictions on imported recyclables; first in 2013 increasing inspection on the waste, and eventually in 2018 outright banning the import of 24 types of recyclables. Moreover, numerous other countries in Southeast Asia have followed in China’s footsteps by banning foreign recyclables, setting contamination standards, and more; resulting in shipments of waste being sent back to their original locations. As a result, global plastic waste exports have plummeted to near extinction. 

The U.S., and other Western countries, as a result has lost the ability to depend on China has lost the ability to depend on China in terms of waste management – thus sending the global recycling industry into chaos. Visual Capitalist notes that while outsourcing waste to China was never a sustainable solution, the U.S. has now unexpectedly taken on the environmental and economic burdens that come with it. Even worse, the global plastic waste crisis is only getting worse as plastics continue to be produced – with hikes in plastic production rates consistently outpacing global population growth by up to 5%. 

Without any foreign countries importing recycled waste, Western nations are now left with the frightening combination of a plastics industry that produces more plastic per capita than any other area of the world and a domestic recycling infrastructure that is nowhere near sufficient enough to handle the capacity. 

The U.S. and other Western countries are now left to take on the burden of plastic waste themselves. Without rapid and effective change, disaster could result – making plastic recycling a critical necessity and top priority for policymakers and the fate of these nations from environmental and economic standpoints. With the recycling industry already in disarray, solutions are direly needed. The U.S. and nations in the E.U. have already begun implementing massive changes to their recycling infrastructure, which while effective still does not address the issue of excessive plastic production. One solution to this issue that can be supported by any individual (and more so by policy makers and professionals involved with material selection in infrastructure, design, construction, and so forth) is to reduce the amount of plastic they use. By making conscious material selection choices, plastic production can be reduced, thus helping the U.S. prepare and adjust to the recent shakeup in global recycling. 

This infographic by Visual Capitalist provides the timeline of China’s ban and details plastic production and recycling in Western nations in detail: