China Recycling Ban Impacts
Unknown to much of the public, China has historically been the largest buyer of recyclable plastics in the world. That ended in January 2018 when China introduced strict controls on processing that many countries were unable to meet, leaving large bales of plastic recyclables piling up in Asia, Europe and North America. Whereas some Asian countries have picked up the slack they simply cannot cope with the enormous volumes involved and this has resulted in some countries incinerating plastic products that conscientious consumers have put out for recycling.
The United States has increased its own recycling capacity, with plants across the country processing record tonnage. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t help that plastics are notoriously difficult to recycle because of the various polymer compositions and processes in each container – a milk bottle is very different to an aerosol cap or cling film for example. This has let to many governments, both national and state, to simply throw up their hands and incinerate the lot.
There are obvious consequences. Many incineration plants are themselves heavy polluters of the environment, and medical data from the neighbourhoods where they operate is extremely worrying, in many cases showing an increase in respiratory disease and cancers, whilst plant operators maintain that their emissions are well within set parameters.
But there is one hope, as the UN recognised recently. Many say that for too long it’s been relatively easy to export plastics and other recyclables to China. Most consumers just assume the job is carried out locally, or at least nationally, with little inkling of the expense, not to mention the carbon footprint, involved in shifting thousands of tonnes of rubbish across the seas. One can only hope that the situation will spur on countries to take care of their own recycling in future. With the right investment, recycling plants can benefit the local economy, provide much needed jobs and improve the environment.