China played an essential role in the global plastic waste trade before the import ban implementation in 2018. According to Wang et al. (2020), China enjoyed the leadership position having the highest trade volume. The significant decline in its ratio in 2017 became a sign of load redistribution among the remaining countries. In general, this policy forced other states to consider new ways of plastic waste management.
The world is divided into two major communities in terms of the global plastic waste trade network (GPWTN). The one consists of European countries, whereas the second involves representatives of Asia and North America. It was a relatively stable network where China was the primary receiver of plastic waste, and the US was its leading producer (Wang et al., 2020). The active redirection of the plastic waste load from China to other Southeastern countries, such as Malaysia and Thailand, can be seen as a direct impact of China’s last ban. For instance, from January to June 2018, Thailand imported 640% more plastic waste in comparison to the previous period (Wang et al., 2020). In general, the system was still stable in global terms thanks to its Southeastern neighbors of China.
Its indirect impact brings several threats both for the US and international waste management. The majority of countries experienced the growing supply of plastic waste since China’s ban (Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia) began to devise their waste policies to protect themselves. Such legal tools restrict the imports of plastic and make exporters leave the current system. Wang et al. (2020) found that the GPWTN could suffer more from export bans than from import ones. However, import bans from other Southeastern developing countries will negatively impact the system’s integrity. It will see significant exporters striving to find new destinations for waste, erect new disposal facilities, and deal with plastics on their own territory. This forced approach to waste management requires significantly higher investments and costs.
China was known for its cheap labor costs, high demand for recycled materials, low contamination standard, and cheap cargo shipments. Hence, before the ban, the US had been selling more than 70% of plastics collected for recycling to Chinese manufacturers (Katz, 2019). Following the ban, many US communities stopped or halted their recycling programs due to rising costs. As a result, they simply toss paper and plastic into the trash, bury them in landfills, or send them to waste-to-energy plants. The burning of plastic waste considerably pollutes the air. Moreover, the practice of waste segregation is more often neglected, leading to higher food and waste contamination. Hence, the plastic waste crisis may adversely influence the environment and, consequently, Americans’ health.
It also has adverse effects on the US economy since recycling requires more budget money to be incurred. The cost to consumers increases, more and more recycling facilities stop working, and plastics remain in the landfills or contaminate lands and rivers. The recycling costs are rising, while the revenue associated with reprocessing degenerates (Katz, 2019). The United States was highly dependent on waste exporting; thus, there is a lack of cost-effective local options for efficient plastic waste management. Incineration and landfills are the cheapest options, which will have negative repercussions in the future.
China’s ban on waste imports and Southeastern countries’ reluctance resulted in a global plastic waste crisis. In the US, recycling costs continue to increase, accompanied by landfills growth and higher water, land, and air pollution. The processing capacities of Europe and North America should be expanded to meet the local demand. Governments have to encourage manufacturers to improve the recyclability of their products. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the crisis, legal restrictions on single-use plastic and improved waste management practice in developed countries may help.
Katz, C. (2019). Piling up: How China’s ban on importing waste has stalled global recycling. Yale Environment 360.
Wang, C., Zhao, L., Lim, M. K., Chen, W. Q., & Sutherland, J. W. (2020). Structure of the global plastic waste trade network and the impact of China’s import ban. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 153(1), 1-12.