Can China be recycled

Plastic import ban How China is changing the global flow of plastic waste

China no longer wants to be the garbage dump of the western world. Now the country has pulled the emergency brake: import freeze for garbage from abroad. Instead, the Chinese government has decided to professionalize waste recovery and recycling - also for environmental reasons. Large landfills on the outskirts of cities have become less common. Whether plastic, metal or other materials: For decades, Europe and North America had simply shipped their rubbish to the Far East. Nobody was interested in what exactly happened with it in China.

It was actually a win-win situation for the Chinese. The merchant ships that brought goods to the West did not have to return empty, but had the garbage as cargo, which was then recycled in China. But the cleaning of the garbage washed chemicals into the waters and the burning of residual plastic polluted the air, says the Chinese branch of the environmental protection organization Greenpeace. Then five years ago a rethink: With growing prosperity, China is producing more and more of its own waste that has to be recycled. As of this year, many types of waste are no longer allowed to be imported - including several types of plastic, paper and textiles.

Import ban causes plastic jam

A key finding of the investigation: the problem with plastic waste will only get worse. The researchers calculate that around 111 million tons of plastic waste will find their way into the environment by 2030. Since 1992, China has imported more than 105 million tons of plastic. That corresponds to a weight greater than 300 Empire State Buildings. In total, that was 45 percent of the world's plastic waste, write the researchers.

The change in China's policies is forcing countries to rethink how they deal with plastic waste. You have to better choose what to recycle and be even more picky about reusing plastics.

Amy Brooks, University of Georgia

But what to do with the plastic waste when China no longer takes it? According to the researchers, people in Europe and North America were simply looking for new Asian rubbish tips: In countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, imports have skyrocketed since the Chinese ban. So much so that an import ban is now being considered in these countries, says study author Brooks. According to studies, only nine percent of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste ever produced has been recycled worldwide. Most of the plastic, however, ended up on landfills or in the environment - 80 percent in nature, 4-12 million tons in the oceans. The Chinese import ban now harbors the risk that this could worsen, especially in Southeast Asia, write the researchers.

Europe has to take care

Simply shipping all the plastic waste we accumulate abroad cannot be a solution, the authors write. It is much more important that the exporting countries keep their waste and ensure that it is disposed of - in the best case by recycling the plastic. But recycling is a challenge when it comes to plastic waste, according to the study. Not all plastics are the same: there is a wide variety of different products, types and additives. In addition, recycling has its limits, so that the garbage cannot be reused indefinitely.

So far, the recycling chain in the rich industrialized countries has functioned stably, write the researchers - but only thanks to garbage exports. If plastic waste remains in the countries in the future, investments must be made in the development and expansion of waste recycling chains. Otherwise, most of the plastic waste exported to date would end up in landfills - which in turn means that pollutants can end up in the soil and groundwater.

A chance for Germany?

The Chinese import ban even offers opportunities for the German recycling industry. The export flows have not only shifted to other, less developed countries. Within Europe, Germany has gradually become a hub for plastic waste and accepts rubbish from Great Britain, for example. According to the Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Disposal, only relatively pure plastic waste remains in Germany and is recycled. The rest will be resold to Eastern Europe. The authors of the study advise countries that import plastic waste to recycle it to impose import duties. The money can then be invested in the expansion of sustainable waste recycling systems.

However, recycling was hardly possible for the majority of the plastic waste that Germany sent to China: Because these were mainly single-use plastics - such as non-returnable PET bottles, the researchers write. The only thing that can help: Avoid plastic waste altogether - especially single-use plastic. Because worldwide, an unimaginable 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste from packaging and single-use plastic would have accumulated last year. The European Union - surprised by the Chinese import ban - is already pursuing this goal. For example, single-use plastic products are to be banned and a levy or tax on plastic waste that the member states should pay is also under discussion.