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Waste ban prompts rethink on plastic

By Chris Davis in New York | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2018-08-17 07:50

Countries are feeling the cutting edge of National Sword program

China's National Sword campaign, banning imports of plastic waste, has had a significant effect on the global recycling industry since it took effect in January.

Countries accustomed to dumping their plastic waste in China are scrambling to come up with new systems, while piles of waste grow at the docks.

 Waste ban prompts rethink on plastic

Workers sort material for recycling in June at the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility in Elkridge, Maryland, in the United States. For months, this major recycling facility for the Greater Baltimore-Washington Area has been paying to get rid of huge amounts of paper and plastic it would normally have sold to China. Saul Loeb / For China Daily

The country's once-thriving scrap plastics importing and processing businesses - where the world's discards were sorted, shredded, cleaned, melted and transformed into polyester for clothing and a range of other products - are also having to adjust.

With an estimated 45 to 55 percent of the world's discarded plastic heading to China for the past 25 years, this global system has suddenly been turned on its head.

Around 106 million metric tons of developed countries' plastic waste had been shipped to China for recycling since the United Nations began tracking the flow in 1992. A new study predicts that because of the ban, 111 million tons of such waste will be displaced by 2030.

The lead author of the study, titled The Chinese Import Ban and Its Impact on the Global Plastic Waste Trade, is Amy Brooks, a doctoral student at the New Materials Institute of the University of Georgia's College of Engineering in the United States. The study appears in the current issue of the journal Science Advances.

"There is lots of uncertainty about what is going to be happening to this displaced waste," she says. "It could be sent to landfills, burned or buried, or sent to other countries that do not necessarily have the infrastructure to manage it."

Brooks says her study found that China imported plastic waste from at least 43 countries in 2016. All of these nations are likely seeing the impact now, she says.

"These countries are going to have to figure out alternative and responsible ways to deal with the plastic waste that has been historically collected and managed by China. The world cannot continue to depend on one country or one region to manage plastic waste," she says.

China's ban is likely "driving increased costs for recycling" as well, Brooks says.

Only 9 percent of plastic waste has been recycled worldwide, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, with the overwhelming majority of it (80 percent) being sent to landfills or contaminating the environment. Various sources estimate that between 4 million and 12 million tons of such waste enters the oceans each year.

Consumers in the US use 245 billion plastic beverage containers a year.

Brooks says, "It doesn't seem that plastic production is going to be decreasing in the near future."

The study says that plastic, a major commodity on a global scale that has entered almost every aspect of modern life, "is a very useful material (moldable, durable, light and inexpensive), and packaging is the most significant sector (with 40 percent of its use)".

The use of plastic in production has outpaced almost all other manufactured materials, rising from 2 million tons in 1950 to 322 million tons in 2015, making for a total of 8.3 billion metric tons.

Waste ban prompts rethink on plastic

The big problem is plastic for single-use purposes, such as drinking straws, cups and food wrappers, which accounts for 61 percent of beach litter worldwide.

Brooks and her co-authors call for "more-robust recycling programs" and "bold new ideas and system-wide changes" to tackle the challenge.

"Innovation and technology that increases the value of plastic waste would lead to higher demand so that less gets leaked into the environment, and so there is a higher demand for recycling domestically," she says.

The trade newspaper and digital platform Plastics News carried out a survey of North American recyclers to see how China's ban has affected their bottom lines. Judging by the comments from the 36 companies that responded, the impact has been mixed.

One in four reported higher volumes of the material, up by an average of 29 percent.

However, one of the comments was, "National Sword has killed my business."

Another stated: "It is flooding the market with excess material, driving the value of the material down excessively. There are fewer recycling alternatives, with access to China being denied."

One recycler said, "The National Sword program has not impacted us too much, but it's a wakeup call to all US recyclers."

Others said the ban was good for business.

"National Sword has actually helped us. We are getting less trash and have found new domestic buyers for most of the material previously sent overseas, at better prices," another recycler said.

Another observation was, "Forcing Chinese processors to relocate elsewhere in Asia has also balanced demand across the market."

Khadem Mahmud Yusuf, a scrap reprocessor from Bangladesh, told Plastics News: "I think (the ban) is a very good thing. Environmental awareness is coming to China."

The end products of plastic recycling are known in the industry as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) pellets.

These sterile resin pellets can be fed readily into a variety of systems and turned into a liquid that in turn is extruded into molds to form a virtually limitless range of items, from water bottles and syringes to computer keyboards and clothing.

China has banned imports of scrap for the messy business of making PET pellets, accepting only completed pellets.

Businesses in China that transformed the scrap into pellets have been moving their machinery to Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia.

Zhang Tao, from polyethylene pellet supplier Tanjung Majujaya in Malaysia, told Plastics News that business has been good.

"Since China can't import scrap, they buy pellets from us, and our business has improved," he said.

Susan Collins from the Container Recycling Institute says, "Fulfilling the promise of recycling is leading to a product that can be used to replace virgin materials."

Virgin plastic refers to the resin produced directly from petrochemicals, such as natural gas or crude oil, that has never been used or processed before.

Producing new plastic from recycled items saves 33 percent of the energy - mainly gas and oil - required to get such materials out of the ground initially.

The health sector has benefited significantly from the use of plastic.

It can be used for prosthetics, latex gloves, intravenous bags, dialysis tubes, engineered tissue, microneedle patches for drug delivery, absorbable stitches and even plasters.

Hermetically sealed single-use disposable syringes have been viewed as a way to slow diseases spread by drug users. Condoms have helped slow the spread of HIV.

Around 60 percent of infectious plastic waste is incinerated, according to a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The study found that while incineration is not readily associated with sustainability, it does prevent disease transmission, but with the drawback of releasing carcinogens into the atmosphere.

Discarding plastic waste in landfills is also not ideal.

Recycling is seen as the best option, because it partially recovers both the material and the energy used to produce plastics. However, of the hundreds of different types of plastics and the 46 in common use, not all can be recycled.

This calls for sorting, a labor-intensive process that adds to costs. It is difficult, if not impossible, to produce recycled plastics of the same quality as their original polymer components. Because of contamination, quality is reduced with each phase of recycling.

The DHHS study comes to this conclusion: The environmental and health issues of the "age of plastics" stem from the fact that "the impact of the scale of plastic consumption and disposal were not considered until after mass-production was well underway".

Report author Brooks acknowledges the benefits that plastics have brought to the world - access to clean drinking water, the increased shelf life of foods and many more.

But what concerns her and her colleagues are the increased levels of consumerism, especially in countries that are expanding rapidly economically but do not have the waste management infrastructure to handle all the trash their consumption is producing.

"So much of it is being leaked into the environment, and that which is collected may or may not be managed properly," Brooks says.

She says one thing she noticed in particular from the study was that, historically, 89 percent of exported plastic waste was polymers of plastics for single-use items.

"This says to me that reduced use of items such as plastic water bottles, plastic straws and plastic bags can make a difference in how much has to be collected and managed.

Jackie Nunez, who lives in Santa Cruz county, California, joined the war on plastic after she led an ocean kayaking and snorkeling expedition to Glover's Atoll, 72 kilometers off the Central American country of Belize.

A storm had hit the area the night before, and as her party was exploring the pristine reef, a "river of trash" washed from the mainland slithered by on its way out to sea. "I was so overwhelmed by this experience," Nunez says.

When she returned to Santa Cruz, she volunteered for a beach cleanup operation, Save Our Shore, and picked up scores of plastic straws.

She then learned, among other things, that plastic straws are one item that cannot be recycled.

Sitting at a beachside bar in Santa Cruz, she was served a glass of water with a straw in it - a straw she had not asked for. Looking around, she saw all those who had been involved in the beach cleanup sipping their drinks through straws.

She asked them, "Didn't you see what we just picked up?"

Nunez thought that if restaurants can be ordered to serve water only on request due to a drought, they could do the same with straws.

She founded the website, and when a video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw torturously removed from its nostril went viral in 2015, the site was inundated by people wanting to help.

Nunez says companies whose business operations depend on single-use disposable plastic items do not have sustainable systems.

She says change is needed. "And that's the great thing about the whole China ban - it's making us readjust and figure out what can work and what doesn't."

(China Daily European Weekly 08/17/2018 page15)

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