China, Imported Recyclables, and Ocean Plastic
Addressing the facts and the fictions around China's ending its overseas purchases of recyclable plastic.
Plastics in our oceans is an emotional issue. The sight of injured marine life and devastated reefs drives us to act out of passion to address a problem that seems all too simple: the irresponsible dumping of plastic trash that ultimately flows into the ocean. Yet the gulf between what the data shows and what people think they know can often lead to responses that are poorly optimized. Today we're going to continue our discussion about how plastic trash gets into our oceans, and what we should be doing about it; this time focusing on the specific issue of China and the purchase of recyclable plastic from overseas.
This is a rare episode that's a followup to another recent episode. Episode #665 was about plastic in the ocean — where it comes from, the true nature of the problems it causes, and what should be done about it — and the episode really blew up. I got at least ten times as much direct feedback on it as I do on the typical episode, both positive and negative. Almost all the negative feedback had something to do with China's 2018 halting of importing recyclable plastic from the United States. One of the main points in the show had to do with the source of all that plastic in the ocean, which is mainly China. Even though the United States produces a lot more waste per person, we mismanage only 2% of it, while China mismanages 76% of theirs. However, for a long time, China imported a lot of recyclable plastic, much of it from the United States. Many of you believed that this meant the United States was still ultimately responsible for much of that trash entering the ocean from Chinese rivers. But with the new Chinese policy in place, and imports from the US curtailed, many of you believed that China will now have far less waste to mismanage, and the United States will now have far more. Therefore, many of you felt, the episode's ultimate conclusion that there's very little Americans can do about this was wrong, and that initiatives like bans on plastic bags and straws still have a meaningful place in the solution. Given that there was so much feedback like this, I felt a followup episode was warranted. China's imports from the US were not covered in my original show, and perhaps they should have been.
Sensationalist headlines did not help the situation either. As deceptive as any of them was a very popularly shared article on CNBC titled "The world is scrambling now that China is refusing to be a trash dumping ground" and included lines like "China was the dumping ground for more than half of the world's trash before the ban". Such misleading rhetoric didn't give a very accurate picture of the economic relationship.
First, and most important to understand, is that this was not a case of the US moving its trash to China to make it their problem, which clearly wouldn't make any logical sense for China to do. China did not buy trash from the US; they bought recyclable raw materials to feed their exploding manufacturing needs. That material had not been trash in the United States either; it was properly managed recyclables that had been sorted and was ready to go into manufacturing. China did not buy it in order to dump it into their rivers; they bought it to manufacture products with. This was part of China's manufacturing supply-side, not part of their post-consumer waste, which is why it's not relevant to their problem of letting trash flow to the oceans.
With waste inside China so poorly managed, there was little available high-quality recycled raw material available to industry. That's why they bought it from abroad: it was much cheaper to buy ready materials than it would have been to revamp their own ineffective waste management infrastructure nationwide.
A 2018 paper in Science Advances titled "The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade" by Brooks, Wang, and Jambeck is an excellent source for more on this. As emerging markets in China skyrocketed in the 1990s, Chinese manufacturers bought more and more recyclables from overseas. It was mutually beneficial for everyone: China needed the inexpensive raw materials, and developed nations needed a profitable way to sell recyclables that exceeded the needs of their own domestic markets.
This is where we should revisit the concept of the Environmental Kuznets Curve, discussed in episode #665. This is a bell curve that shows the amount of environmental degradation over time as a nation's economy develops. Poor nations don't make any investment in the environment; but since they don't have much, they don't produce much trash. Then as their economy grows, consumers produce more trash and the bell curve climbs. As their economy grows more and they start to see the effects of what a mess they're making, they begin to make environmental investment — and this is where China is right now, at maximum trash output, and just beginning to invest in waste management. As the economy grows further, the output of mismanaged waste decreases as effective environmental policy dominates and waste management improves. The United States, for example, is all the way at the far right side of the Kuznets bell curve: a big economy, big investment in the environment, and minimal environmental degradation.
At China's import peak in 2010, 123 countries worldwide exported over 14 gigatons of recycables annually, with China buying just over half of it, as their manufacturing juggernaut was at maximum. As they began to suffer the severe effects of pollution, China began imposing greater restrictions on the recyclables they purchased, requiring that they be better sorted and more pure. Eventually this became their "Green Fence" policy of 2013, which placed strict rules on the quality of imported materials. The Green Fence had an immediate impact worldwide on material recovery facilities (MRFs, often pronounced "murphs"). Suddenly the MRFs couldn't sell to China, and for many of them, China had been by far their largest customer — in fact, China accounted for about 40% of all their business worldwide. In any business, too much dependence upon a single customer can pose an unacceptable risk, and the Green Fence was the first shot across the bow to the world's MRFs. China's imports dropped by gigatons.
Then in 2017, China pushed their selectivity even further, deploying their "National Sword" initiative which was a crackdown on all the black market imports that had sprung up as a result of the Green Fence. Together, Green Fence and National Sword symbolized China's cresting the top of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. Their investment in their own environment reached the point where it became imperative to stimulate domestic material recovery. Rather than let 76% of their post-consumer waste end up in rivers and ultimately the world's oceans, it was time to collect it, recover any usable recyclables, and properly manage the rest.
So it was not unexpected that in July 2017, China filed a notice with the World Trade Organization that beginning in 2018, they would ban all imports of post-consumer plastics, mixed paper, and other recyclables, totaling some 24 types of material. By cutting off Chinese manufacturers' access to foreign raw materials, China was attempting to force the emergence of domestic MRFs to clean up China while stemming the flow of cash overseas.
And this is where we are now. Inside the United States — the world's second biggest generator of plastic waste — the impacts on the waste management industry has so far been limited, according to the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), and despite some reporting in the popular media of a doomsday scenario such as a 2019 article in WIRED headlined "Since China's Ban, Recycling in the US Has Gone Up in Flames". The prediction by some people — that American waste management companies would turn to dumping recyclable plastic at sea — has certainly not come to pass, and would be illegal anyway. Some municipalities have cut or scaled back collection of recyclables, as the industry has focused on improved processes to produce higher quality materials, and finding alternative markets for unsold recovered plastic.
Economists are predicting that this trend will increase. As MRFs have dropped their prices in response to the increased supply and reduced demand, alternative markets have risen. New technologies such as optical and robotic sorting have contributed to constant improvement in the quality of materials. And, importantly, economists expect that China will ultimately relax its ban on purchasing from overseas, due to the reduced prices and the improved quality. We're seeing a gradual market adaptation, not an overnight catastrophe. Overall, most analysts are seeing China's ban as generally a good thing for the waste industry worldwide, forcing everyone to — quite literally — clean up their act.
But in the short term, deposition of plastics in landfills has increased. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. To understand why not, return to the central conclusion of episode #665 where we discussed two major threats to Earth's oceans that are far more immediate and dangerous than plastic trash: overfishing, and above all, global warming and the attendant acidification. One of the keys to controlling global warming is controlling methane emissions — an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 but fortunately present in much lower concentrations. Landfills are the third largest source of anthropogenic methane in the world, so it seems like we should be terrified at the prospect of adding more plastic waste to landfills. However, this is not the case. It turns out landfills are a great way to dispose of plastics that the market won't let us recycle. Here's why.
Buried trash generates methane in three ways. According to the EPA, these are:
and the biggest contributor:
However, plastic is conveniently immune to this. Inorganic carbon in plastics does not decompose in a landfill environment. It is permanently sequestered and produces no greenhouse gas emissions. If the market can't support recycling plastic waste, landfilling it is — perhaps surprisingly — the most environmentally responsible thing we can do.
Conversely, some municipalities have turned to the absolute worst thing we can do with surplus plastic: burning it, often for generating electricity. This creates not only all the greenhouse gases that plastic is capable of, it also produces the unhealthiest components of smog. Far more than any plastic in the ocean, the burning of plastic in the atmosphere is ultimately much more harmful to the ocean and to ocean life.
So let's briefly recap the important points, and as some of these come from episode #665, I encourage you to listen to that one if you haven't yet:
And always remember one of the key policies we follow here at Skeptoid: Seek out data-driven policy over emotion-driven policy. Often they are different; sometimes radically so.
Correction: An earlier version of this misstated the relationship between methane and carbon dioxide in driving global warming. —BD
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