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| be Waste Wise | April 23, 2018

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China Ban and the End of Recycling as We Know It

China Ban and the End of Recycling as We Know It

Organized on 15th Feb, 2018


PANELISTS

David Biderman

DAVID BIDERMAN

Executive Director/CEO, Solid Waste Association of North America

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Madhumitha Rajendran has summarized the panel discussion and put together a set of interesting quotes.

CONTEXT

From January 1st, 2018, China announced a ban on importing recyclable materials from the rest of the world. This ban concerns 24 different materials, which were broadly imported by China earlier, of these post consumer plastic and mixed paper are the two most important for the recycling community. In this webinar, Antonis Mavropoulos and David Biderman discuss the repercussions of this ban in UK, USA & Europe.

QUICK SUMMARY & QUOTES

ANTONIS MAVROPOULOS,  ISWA

The ban concerns 24 different materials, which were broadly imported by China earlier. The most important problems will be faced by plastics and plastic recycling programs, at least temporarily.

  • The countries that deal with recycling in an industrial scale like Australia, UK and European countries are dependent on their export to China.
  • In Europe, half of the plastic we recycle, was exported to China.
  • In many curbside recycling programs, 10-20% impurities are also received, which was not feasible for local processing.
  • Exporting to China was the easy answer to a very inconvenient question on how to deal with impurities.
  • In USA, a lot of plastics will end up in landfills with a special price.

This could be a good opportunity for policy makers to understand that recycling is an imperfect costly and vulnerable solution, unless you find closed loops in the local original scale.

  • We have to reprioritize the importance of recycling to our systems.
  • The introduction of circular economy and resource management as in integral part in every waste management system gives us the opportunity for waste prevention, reuse and repair, even if it is old fashioned.
  • Recent reports from Netherlands, Australia and Brazil state that the China ban has lowered the plastic recycling price locally.

A paper written by Costas Velis in 2012 said that we are exporting the waste and building recycling rates, when we know that most of the waste is not being recycled in China, and was burnt as a cheap fuel in completely inhuman conditions, creating pollution problems, impacting health and the environment. 

  • China has banned the import of waste, citing environmental and health impacts. This shows that they have not been able to manage the waste properly in the previous years. 
  • The global plastic industry has grown; there are 180 billion dollars investments to be completed by 2025, which is one of the best emitters of CO2, as this industry is completely based on fossil fuels.

One of the major challenges is to link the designers of the products and the packaging and waste management.

  • We still have not found a massive solution for plastic cups, hard plastic, toothbrushes, etc.
  • Can we increase the plastic recycling rates from 25-30% to 60%? I am sure we cannot, because the plastics that are prepared and consumed now are mostly not recyclable.
  • We know very well that from the current plastic waste, only 30-40% can be recycled. Even if we recycle everything, we will increase consumption, and will need more and more plastic.
  • This is an opportunity for thinking about global marine litter, as there is a huge risk that the China ban will result in more plastics in the sea.

Let’s face the China ban as an opportunity to rediscover our waste systems rather than complaining about it.

DAVID BIDERMAN,  SWANA

The biggest loser in the current situation is the planet- we are going to have 9 billion people by 2050, and waste generation continues to increase at an alarming rate. If we don’t come up with sustainable systems in every country, we will have more plastic in the ocean, more illegal dumping and more GHGs.

  • In USA, the biggest impact has been on the mixed paper market, especially on the West Coast
  • About 25% of all the exported material that went out of California ports by weight in 2016 was scrap and recyclables.
  • There is now a lot of stockpiling of bales of waste material in warehouses outside MRFs and parking lots.

Americans aren’t very good at recycling, and hence we are trying to attack the contamination problem with better education on the front end. In the back end, they are trying to slow down the process, hire more people for quality control.

  • The biggest winners are the people making the recycling equipment, as there is a lot of interest in purchasing new equipment or upgrading them.
  • There is a renewed interest in circular economy, technology and waste reduction. We do not have a lack of landfill space in the USA, but one of the principle reasons for recycling is climate change
  • There has been an increase in waste exports to India from Europe, however these are temporary solutions, and they could have a ban similar to China.

SWANA has announced the formation of a new recycling task force, which is a new group that brings different technical division leadership together from the public and private sector, in USA and Canada, and includes non-members of SWANA, to discuss current problems and guidance that can be given to policy makers.

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