On December 31, 2017, China barred the import of most residential recyclables. After importing nearly half of the world’s plastic waste for 30 years, global waste plastic exports to China ground to a trickle overnight. In February 2017, China imported 581,000 metric tons of plastic waste. One year later, that number had dropped to 23,900 metric tons.
Researchers at the University of Georgia looked at how much plastic waste China imported from 1988 to 2016. Using that information they concluded that, by 2030, the ban may leave 111 million metric tons of plastic waste with nowhere to go. So what can be done about it? Many developed countries across the world have put a halt on domestic recycling programs until that question is answered.
On Bornholm Island in the Baltic Sea, the local government is adopting a new system. Bornholm officials say that by 2032, all waste on Bornholm will be treated as resources. They hope that, by using new technologies and methods of garbage sorting, recycling and minimizing waste in general, they can turn Bornholm into one of the first garbage-free communities in the world.
Of course, this requires alterations to the very way of life of people on Bornholm – new technologies aren’t enough on their own. According to Jens Hjul-Nielsen, the CEO of the island’s waste management company, “How we get to that point is an exciting process, because there is so much we don’t know yet. We have a vision, but no clear-cut plan on how to get there.”
How about burning? Many within the trash industry think that burning plastic waste is the solution to the problem, but waste-to-energy projects pose their own very real risks to the environment. The EU already burns 42 percent of its waste. The U.S. burns 12.5 percent. China itself has over 300 waste-to-energy plants in operation, with the plans for several hundred more in the works.
It sounds sensible after all – incinerators burn plastic and other municipal waste, produce heat and steam to turn turbines and generate power for the local grid. But no one wants to live next to a plant filled with garbage, so finding locations to set up is difficult. They’re also more expensive to operate – so they generally charge more than landfills do. And studies have even shown that recycling plastic waste saves more energy than burning it by reducing the need to extract fossil fuel and process it into new plastic.
Perhaps the most egregious of these issues is the toxic emissions of acid gases, dioxins and heavy metals. While modern plants can scrub and filter these toxins if they are well-maintained and properly operated, experts worry that countries lacking strong environmental laws or enforcement may cut corners and try to save money on emissions. This is all not to mention the production of greenhouse gases. In 2016, waste incineration in the U.S. alone resulted in the equivalent of 12 million tons of carbon dioxide generated – over half of which came from plastics.
“We have a vision, but no clear-cut plan on how to get there.”
One promising new technology is called pyrolysis – plastics are shredded down and melted at low temperatures in oxygen-deprived chambers. The heat breaks the plastic down into hydrocarbons, which can be turned into diesel fuel. Pyrolysis produces very few pollutants, but it is still much cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than from waste plastic. However, as the technology ages and more research is done, it could be a promising method of plastic waste disposal in the future.
In terms of methodology, the Canadian West Coast remains unaffected by China’s plastic import ban. Under British Columbia’s 2014 program, plastics are processed within the province, and producers pay for it. Retailers, manufacturers, restaurants – they all pay fees to Recycle BC, and those fees are used to run a province-wide system to process plastic.
Elsewhere in Canada, municipalities are struggling so much to find places to send their recyclables after the ban that those who do find markets for the material are keeping them a secret. The city of Halifax, which was formerly shipping 80 percent of its plastic recyclables to China, refuses to name its facilities out of fear of being outbid.
The best option, of course, is to reduce the world’s reliance on plastic. It’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference by avoiding single-use straws and cups while mega-corporations dump tonnes of plastic into rivers across the planet, but when millions of people start to reuse bottles and bags, the plastic trash produced every year begins to diminish.
Until then, we can only hope that continued research into plastic waste reduction and recycling can keep our collective heads above water.