Is China Forcing Us to Rethink Our Recycling Model?


China is not only investing massively in the recycling industry but it is also taking impressive decisions to force Western countries to rethink their process of waste disposal. And its ban on the imports of foreign waste is already making a difference


Year after year, China is positioning itself as a leader in the climate space. Every time the Dragon invests on sustainable development, every time Xi Jinping talks about Ecological Civilization, but most of all, every time Beijing takes a decision about recycling, it affects the whole world.

The People’s Republic is the world’s largest trash generator, but at the same time, it is leading global shift to sustainability. How? By refusing to be the world’s dumping ground any more, thus forcing other countries to reconsider the concept of recycling while unraveling the problem of producing waste that needs to be processed.


china forces us to rethink recycling - sustainability - cifnews

© Pixabay. China’s transformation into a sustainable economy starts with investments in Green Tech, used to optimize current processes.


As strange as it may seem to many, the concept of Ecological Civilization comes from the Middle Kingdom, whose environmental crisis is well-known. However, while Donald Trump announces to withdraw from the Paris agreements and Australia and Brazil decide not to cooperate on the issue of climate change, Xi Jinping reiterates the country’s intent to respond to global climate disruption with a new form of human civilization, the one based on ecology and sustainability.

One of the main decisions to address the environmental crisis has been the Chinese ban on foreign waste imports. In 2017, China notified the World Trade Organization that it would no longer import plastic waste from the US and EU starting from January 2018. This was notable since China has been the world’s dumping ground receiving 25% of global plastic and paper scrap for over 25 years.

It is Beijing’s campaign against yang laji, foreign garbage, a market estimated at $17 billion in 2016. This campaign created ripple effects in global recycling markets since the ban included 24 types of material to be recycled such as recyclable plastic, textile residues, low-quality waste paper, often fraudulently weighed down by stones.

Moreover, in March 2018, Beijing started to check the quality of recoverable waste. Indeed, the objective of the ban is to protect the environment from waste that is dirty or contains dangerous substances that often reach Chinese ports. A waste content of more than 0.03% will not be accepted in the materials anymore.


According to a recent report by the World Bank, in 2016, the world population produced two billion tons of municipal solid waste, a sharp increase compared to 1.8 billion tons produced three years earlier.


In terms of quantity, in 2016, the United States exported 13.2 million tons of waste paper and 1.42 million tons of plastic waste to be recycled to China. After the regeneration, these material used to return to Europe and the US in the form of Chinese products’ packaging. But according to the Chinese Government, the internal collection of waste materials to be regenerated, instead, is already sufficient to satisfy Chinese demand.

The result is that now every country is forced to rethink its waste industry, either rethinking its recycling model or its production of waste to process. US and UK markets are unable to meet domestic recycling demands, and Southeast Asian countries ended to be overwhelmed with sharp increases in waste imports diverted from China.

In Europe, loads of materials that have become unusable are diverted to incinerators so that at least they are recovered in the form of quality fuel. Many countries also send their waste to Southeast Asia, which is soon going to be clogged with foreign waste. According to a Greenpeace report, new countries free from strict environmental regulations, mainly Southeast Asia, have become the main destinations for Western waste.

Therefore, following the Chinese ban, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand quickly became the main destinations for global waste. However, since 2018, these nations have introduced restrictive measures on the imports of plastic waste resulting in numerous containers of trash sent back home.


China forces us to rethink recycling - Indonesia - cifnews

© Unsplash. Bandung City, Indonesia. After the Chinese ban on waste imports, Indonesia becomes the latest Southeast Asian country to return waste to the West.


The entry of these “new” nations into the global scene has failed to match the amount of waste imported by Beijing before the ban. According to researchers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage waste recycling processes from production activities and some urban waste collection flows, in particular, those of post-consumer plastic packaging.

“Since January 1, China has closed the market, it no longer takes plastic to recycle. In the meantime, in the EU we use and produce too much plastic,” says Günter Öttinger, the European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources.

But the first notable consequence of China’s ban comes from Europe. Last March, the European Parliament approved new regulations to limit the diffusion of the main disposable plastic products by 2021, empowering both the producers and consumers to recycle.


“In 2018, China changed its policies on the import of plastic waste and this has revealed the crisis of the global recycling system,” says Giuseppe Ungherese, head of the Pollution Campaign of Greenpeace Italy.


This new European law imposes the ban on the marketing of disposable plastic products for which there are sustainable and economically accessible alternatives. For other plastic products, awareness-raising work will continue to be carried out to significantly reduce consumption.

For what concerns the United States, instead, it is the world leader in garbage export. Already in 2015, the US reached 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5% in fifteen years and up 60% in less than forty years. It means three kilos of garbage per capita every day.

After the Chinese ban, Washington found itself facing an overwhelming amount of waste to dispose of. In the whole country, there are now hundreds of municipalities and counties that have limited and canceled recycling programs or accepted huge price increases with the threat of new taxes. Incinerators are, therefore, more active than ever, with huge environmental impact.


china forces us to rethink recycling - smartphone - cifnews

© Unsplash. Thanks to the use of advanced technologies like AI and IoT, China made it possible to contribute easily to recycling via mobile apps for waste sorting and disposal.


Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, expanding economies like China have been based on the disposable model. However, having paid the highest price for its fast economic expansion, the PRC is now aware that the environmental problems have to be addressed to build the long-awaited successful modern superpower the Dragon aims to be.

Chinese decision to stop imports of trash has forced exporting countries to reimagine the process of waste disposal within their borders creating a promising environment for the development of zero-waste projects. Indeed, Europe and the US – even though the actual President seems to go the opposite way – are setting ambitious goals in the field of recycling and are trying to radically change their waste management.


Although the Chinese decision did not change Western bad habits, having just changed original waste trade routes, it, however, managed to unravel the numerous weaknesses in the recycling system on a global scale.


Now Europe has a legislative model to defend and promote internationally, with which it will reduce the environmental damage of 22 billion euros – the estimated cost of plastic pollution in Europe until 2030. In the same time, China is investing in the technology to improve the recycling industry, thus providing both producers and consumers with the proper innovation to face the environmental crisis.

Compared to other countries, the Dragon will be the world’s largest trash generator by 2030 but at the same time, it is still forcing Western countries to join its fight against climate change.


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