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China’s plastic waste ban will leave 111 million tons of trash with nowhere to go

But it’s gotta go somewhere, right?

China’s recent crackdown on the import of plastic waste will result in millions of tons of displaced plastic trash, according to new research. The ban will force countries like the US to find new ways to deal with their own trash.

On December 31st, 2017, China put a halt to a lot of the plastic waste that foreign countries like the US sent to its shores for disposal. To calculate the impact of that ban, researchers at the University of Georgia looked at how much plastic waste China imported from 1988 to 2016. They then used that information to calculate that by 2030, the ban might leave 111 million metric tons of plastic trash with nowhere to go, according to a study published today in Science Advances.

Since 1988, nearly half of the planet’s plastic trash — like single-use soda bottles, food wrappers, and plastic bags — has been sent to China, where the material is recycled to make more plastic goods. The 2017 ban, however, has left countries like the US scrambling for what to do with all the extra plastic waste. In the US, a lot of it is already piling up in landfills, according to The New York Times. Today’s study is the first one to tally what the consequences of China’s trash ban will be. It also highlights the need for countries that have traditionally exported their plastic waste to rethink how they dispose of it.

“You can screw up a lot of the global trade system just by stopping a few things — and the movement of trash is one of them,” says Daniel Hoornweg, associate professor of energy systems and nuclear science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the research. “Plastic’s heavily embedded in our society.”

Countries like the US have sent more than 10 million metric tons of plastic waste China’s way over the past three decades. Plastic waste is often in cruddy condition once it reaches the bin: if it’s not covered in yesterday’s lunch, then it’s mixed in with other materials, since many countries ask residents to recycle plastic, glass, and paper all together. Sorting through and breaking down that jumbled litter takes energy, and that energy costs money that countries, like the US, aren’t willing to spend, says lead study author Amy Brooks, an environmental engineering student at the University of Georgia.

“It was cheaper to throw [the trash] onto a boat and send it abroad than deal with it here,” she says.

After years of importing all this trash, China has decided to put a stop to it. “It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that this was coming,” says Hoornweg. “China’s economy has grown faster and larger more than anyone else’s.” As quality of life improves, the country has decided to cut down on its emissions, including those coming from processing and destroying plastic, Hoornweg says. The ban is part of China’s push toward becoming a less polluted country. But what does the ban mean for the rest of the world?

To answer that question, Brooks and her team accessed the United Nations Commodity Trade Database, which acts as a ledger for the international trade of everything — including plastic waste — since 1962. The researchers looked at how much plastic trash China has imported every year since 1988, when the UN database first notes the plastic waste trade. They combed through data on every possible plastic type they could find, from the rigid PVC that makes piping to the thinner polyethylene that makes up plastic bags.

They found that China has taken in more than 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste since 1992. In 2016 alone, China imported more than 7 million tons of trash, adding onto the nearly 61 million tons that the country had produced. Based on these trends, the researchers then estimated that because of the trash ban, 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be stranded by 2030.

The big question now is, if this garbage won’t end up in China, where will it go?

Countries like the US, the UK, and Germany will need to find new ways to deal with all this extra trash. Sending it to local landfills is one way; incinerating it is another — but both options have downsides, such as producing toxic air pollution that can lead to a host of health issues from itchy eyes to breathing problems. Another option is to send the extra trash to other countries in Southeast Asia, like the Philippines and Vietnam, says Hoornweg. But these countries have seen massive upticks in their own plastic trash, they often lack the infrastructure for managing that waste, and have also contemplated implementing restrictions similar to China’s.

"Other options aren't ideal"

The best option, according to Brooks, is to avoid using single-use items like plastic straws and cups in the first place. Opting for reusable bottles and bags can reduce the amount of plastic trash produced every year. “These are really simple things that you can try to do,” says Brooks. “And I know that people don’t really feel like they’re making a difference when they do that on their own [...] but when millions of people start doing that, it will absolutely make a difference.”

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