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The Chinese government plans to ban waste imports — including plastics — by the end of this year. While this could have positive repercussions in the long term, like exporting countries being forced to re-evaluate their approach to waste and improve their systems, we could see negative impacts appear quickly. Without China and its fibre industry serving as an end market, some countries may forego plastics collection efforts, leaving plastics to be littered or disposed of in landfills, waterways or the ocean.
Is introducing a ban the right move?
It has always been a challenge for China to monitor and effectively control the volume of waste imports coming into the country, so it was no surprise that China announced a ban. The country has also wanted to clean up its recycling industries and prevent hazardous waste from entering the environment.
However, in announcing the ban, the government has potentially jeopardised prominent industries such as the recycled fibre industry. This industry requires these feedstocks for it to remain competitive in the global market, and thousands of citizens are employed by processing and recycling plants.
The ban is unlikely to cut back on smuggling, which has always been a part of the trade of waste plastics, and this activity could potentially shift to other parts of the region.
How will current exporters be affected?
Historically, the US, Japan and Hong Kong have been the largest exporters of waste plastics, but the outlook has changed. The proportion of collected material exported from the US has been declining as the region absorbs a greater share of the collected material. Many will see this as a golden opportunity to keep material within the domestic market, lower the region's carbon footprint in the recycling chain, and truly achieve a circular economy.
For Japan and Hong Kong, the situation is less transparent. The opportunity to overhaul the national supply chain is there for the taking in both countries, although this is more likely to be the case in Japan.
Are we likely to see more bans?
In the short term, it's highly unlikely that other countries will opt to ban waste plastic imports. Waste imports are now finding their way to other Asian countries that already have an end market, such as those in fibre production. With capacities likely to shift from China to elsewhere in Asia, it's doubtful that governments will back a ban.
The recent news coming from China should serve as a warning for countries who do export waste plastics. Asian countries may be happy to accept waste plastics, but the quality must be of acceptable levels to ensure the stream is viable and sustainable for both the industry and environment.
Who will fill China's shoes?
Southeast Asia could potentially become a world leader in importing plastic waste. This region has traditionally been the single largest source of waste imports into China and is now in the position to further develop its reclamation capacity and secondary markets. With financial investment from China, advances are currently underway.
What are the Long-term effects of the waste plastics ban?
There are both economic and environmental implications of imposing an injunction. It is that China will revert the ban in the future and opt to impose more controlled measures permitting high quality imports, as seen in 2010 with the bale import permit system.