Since 1992, China has imported more than 45% of the world’s plastic waste for recycling. That ended last December when the country banned the import of non-industrial waste. Now, all that plastic has nowhere to go to be recycled and likely will end up in landfills in the United States and other developed countries that generate most of the plastic waste.
According to new research published Wednesday in Science Advances, between now and 2030 an estimated 111 million metric tons (tonnes) of plastic will be “displaced,” or, in plain language, have nowhere to go.
The primary culprits here are single-use plastics used in drinking straws, plastic cups, and for packaging of food, like yogurt, beverages and tobacco products. According to the University of Georgia researchers, the waste stream from these uses has generated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste.
In 2016, China imported more than 7 million tonnes of trash and generated about 61 million tonnes of its own. Recycling that much plastic uses large amounts of energy, much of it generated by coal which in turn raises carbon dioxide emissions in a country that is spending massive amounts of money to reduce carbon emissions by building renewable generation facilities.
The researchers issued a call for action:
Both the displaced plastic waste and future increases in plastic recycling must be addressed immediately. Initially, the countries exporting the most plastic waste can use this as an opportunity to develop and expand internal markets. If domestic recycling of plastic waste is not possible, then this constraint reinforces the motivation to reduce use and redesign plastic packaging and products so that they retain their value and are more recyclable in domestic markets.
And if that doesn’t happen? Only 9% of the 6.3 billion tonnes of global plastic waste has ever been recycled. Most ends up in landfills or contaminating the environment. An estimated 4 million to 12 million tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every year, according to the researchers.
The full research report is available at the Science Advances website.