China has turned its back on plastic in favor of a ‘cleaner’ future

Written by Maggie Wysocki, CNN Until the late 20th century, plastics remained a purely industrial market. Even today, with more than 60 billion pounds of plastic falling into the ocean each year, less than…

China has turned its back on plastic in favor of a 'cleaner' future

Written by Maggie Wysocki, CNN

Until the late 20th century, plastics remained a purely industrial market. Even today, with more than 60 billion pounds of plastic falling into the ocean each year, less than 10% of plastic waste is deposited in plastic processing facilities — which means plenty of plastic festers and rot in landfills and is disposed of illegally.

China, in particular, is flush with the industrial waste that contains virgin plastic with an expiration date. But unlike the United States, Germany, India and other countries, it had yet to turn down the tap on its massive commercial demand for plastic, despite evidence it will produce some five times as much plastic waste by 2050.

Stephen Holcombe, senior environment adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council in the United States, summed up the country’s background in a statement shortly after the June announcement: “China has a lot of plastic in its refuse and is well positioned to turn it into the replacement fuel it needs to drive its future.”

Chinese producer Li xun. Credit: CLIVE EDWARDS/REUTERS

Significant progress

At the same time, according to researchers at Landscape and Sustainability Asia Pacific (LSAAP), the greater volume of waste entering the market has allowed the world’s largest manufacturer of plastic waste management to boost production across production lines, compared to seven years ago.

At the dawn of the 21st century, LSAAP noted, Chinese manufacturers produced an annual average of 2.1 million metric tons of plastic waste. In 2015, they produced an astonishing 34.1 million metric tons, and this year, despite the economic slowdown, they are expected to produce some 46.8 million metric tons.

This explosive rise has been accompanied by “significant progress” in plastic debris disposal, as well as reduction in waste loss, the LSAAP statement noted. But in the interview process to produce the report, researchers noted that waste management companies noted a drop in the share of recyclable plastic in their production, with significant secondary markets, known as “gray markets,” emerging in the process.

Any other nation would do the same

As China pivots towards the “cleaner” manufacturing of sustainable products, plastic recycling has been suppressed, according to the researchers, affecting the local environment. A combined 2.3 million metric tons of plastic waste was left by China — 7% of the country’s overall plastic waste volume — as a result of the policies of the new administration of President Xi Jinping, they noted.

“Any other nation would do the same as China to manage their materials and have the same sustainability development as China,” said Chris Mayers, the LSAAP president.

After a decade of import bans and diversions to other nations, plastic waste is now shunted off into landfill, he added.

“What we have seen for the last 10 years is a real shrink in the amount of recycling coming into China, but the amount of waste has increased tremendously.”

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