How Bans on Importing Waste Have Thrown Global Recycling Into Chaos

For years, wealthy countries like the U.S. have been handling their surplus of plastic waste by shipping it off to China and other countries who were willing to purchase it and turn it into recycled goods. An estimated 70% of the worlds plastic waste was being shipped to China, which amounted to around 7 million tons per year.


However, due to an overwhelming amount of plastic piling up, China banned nearly all plastic imports in 2018. After China implemented its ban, many countries followed. In 2019, 180 countries convened in Geneva and agreed to add “mixed plastic scrap” to the Basel Convention, which is an international treaty that controls the movement of hazardous wastes.


With new bans on importing and exporting plastic, global recycling has been upended as countries grapple with how to deal with their plastic waste domestically.


Countries Buried in Plastic


After China banned plastic imports in 2018, many smaller nations such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, India and Poland

began to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, these countries lacked the facilities to be able to process the enormous amount of low-quality plastics that were being dumped on their shores.


Many have resorted to burning and “free dumping” these plastics into landfills, destroying local ecosystems. These countries are in desperate need of better recycling facilities that can process more types of plastic, but lack the funds and resources to implement them.




Wealthy Countries Are Still Over-Producing, but There’s Nowhere for it to Go


In wealthy countries like the U.S., the effect of the import bans is beginning to reverberate through the country. China and other countries used to take a mixture of high-quality and low-quality plastics because they had the resources to sort the unwanted trash from the useful plastics.


Now that the bans are in place, many curbside recycling programs are being suspended due to the fact that single-bin recycling programs are no longer cost-effective because so much of it must be sorted and tossed out, and local municipalities lack the staffing and funds to hand-sort what is received so that they can meet the new stringent requirements for what plastics can be locally recycled or exported.


A Global Shift in Recycling Practices


With the global value of plastic at an all-time low and strict requirements on what plastic can be imported and exported on the global marketplace, countries are now having to face that new recycling systems are desperately needed, and production of non-recyclable products needs to be drastically reduced.


In the U.S., many municipalities are moving to multi-bin recycling or refusing to pick up bins that contain non-recyclable materials. Abroad, countries like Malaysia and the Philippines are even shipping waste back to the countries it came from while they try to tackle what remains of the piles of imported and domestic waste that buries their beaches and fills landfills.


Most importantly, the production of low-quality plastics is yet again being thrust into the spotlight as one of the main culprits of plastic rubbish piling up across the world. These plastics cannot be recycled and now they cannot be put “out of sight, out of mind” in the wealthy countries that are producing them. Experts hope that these import bans will begin to turn the tide and put more pressure on manufacturers to not only use recycled plastics whenever they can, but stop producing low-quality plastics that have nowhere to go after their limited useful lifespan.


You can read more about RIO’s mission to end ocean plastic pollution and how we are making products that promote a cleaner, more sustainable future for everyone.