One Country’s Trash…Another’s Treasure?

Over the past few decades, production and manufacturing of plastic materials (equipment, technology, plastic goods, etc.) shifted from the Americas and Europe to Asia. Much of this shift was due to lower labor costs, less strict health and safety standards, and both the lacking generally weak implementation of regulations and environmental controls. As of 2014, China was the leader in plastic waste importing, accounting for 56% of the global plastic scrap market by weight from many Western countries and almost half of the entire financial activity of plastic waste imports (See Figure 1). Along with having the largest plastic production industry, and thus an extremely high demand for manufacturing supplies, China has also become a leader in reprocessing of plastic waste. Thus, importing and exporting of plastic waste is now a billion dollar global industry, with China at its very center.

infographic

Unfortunately, there is no clear understanding of what happens to plastic waste once it is shipped to China. Many of the plastic waste processing operations are considered to be private “mom-and-pop” businesses using low-tech sorting methods and equipment to sell plastic waste to larger companies or consist of informal recycling sectors in impoverished and disadvantaged regions that end up picking out plastic scraps from bins and waste sites. Further, quality standards and inspection regulations of processes and facilities are lacking in existence or are ineffectively implemented resulting in low-quality reprocessing.

As a means to regain control of the importation or processing of plastic scrap, the Green Fence Operation was introduced in China from February 2013 to November 2013 as an initiative to increase the regulation of plastic waste imports. This “fence” was a virtual plastic waste border wall resulting in increased inspection and monitoring of incoming plastic waste material. China’s aim was to reduce illegal imports and trading within the country while also increasing the overall quality of imported waste by rejecting any materials that were contaminated with other resins, organic material, or high moisture contents.

As many countries were almost entirely dependent upon China’s capability to absorb waste material, the impact of the enactment of the Green Fence Operation was immediately felt in the international plastic waste industry. Many saw increased processing times both domestically and at China’s ports, higher costs and fees for exporting to China, or lost investments on attempts to export plastic waste only for it to be returned to the supplying country. Further, many countries and private industries had to increase their inspection procedures at home prior to exporting plastic waste to China, resulting in higher overhead costs. Even worse, plastic waste began to pile up in many countries with no clear destination or processing availability. While all of this was seen as a disaster among exporting countries, it was also a much-needed wake up call in regards to the dependency on China as the sole plastic waste processor. In fact, may argue that this dependency has even diminished the necessity to create more innovative domestic waste management strategies in exporting countries such as the US and the UK.

While the enactment of the Green Fence Operation was temporary, strict enforcement of plastic waste importation is still underway in China. What does this mean for other processing countries (e.g. India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.)? How might these stronger regulations impact Chinese citizens? How might the large suppliers of plastic scrap (US, UK, EU Countries, etc.) adjust to decreased dependency upon China in the long-term?

 

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21 thoughts on “One Country’s Trash…Another’s Treasure?

  1. You would hope that this would provoke the countries dependent on China to reduce the production of plastic scrap or at least begin to recycle on their own. In order to export the recycled plastic the countries are asked to spend a lot more money in order to sort the plastic. Either funds can be invested to find a cheap sorting method or policy could be looked at that requires the individual that is recycling to sort it themselves. However requiring this would decrease the amount of participation.

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  2. Thanks for posting this blog! I had no idea that China was the main leader in reprocessing plastic waste. I think it’s good that the Green Fence Operation was introduced to monitor the incoming plastic wastes to make sure they complied to standards. However, I do think that other countries including the United States should figure out ways to reprocess plastics in an environmentally friendly and ethical way instead of having to depend on China so much.

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  3. This blog was really interesting! I didn’t realize that so many countries were dependent on China for their recycling needs. I do think it’s important not to throw the informal waste sector under the bus just because it’s low tech – in many parts of the world that have low resources for large capital investments in fancy MRFs but excess resources in terms of human capital, low tech, people-driven solutions can make sense. For much of the developing world the informal waste sector provides a valuable public service in terms of waste collection and litter pick up. In Colombia, they have chosen to invest in the informal waste sector by supplementing compensation to waste pickers outside of the volatile plastic recycling markets, thereby providing more economically viable income opportunities instead of investing in high-tech recycling centers. Just another way to look at potential solutions!

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  4. Like the post says, I think the Green Fence Operation was a powerful wake up call the world needed. Using China as a scapegoat for plastic waste might no longer be a feasible option. Large plastic waste producers in other countries must work towards reducing their volume to a point where they can handle them. This increased pressure to be responsible for the waste might breed new and innovate recycling technologies and plastic use/reduction policies that can be shared and implemented all over the world.

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  5. Quite an insane, yet appropriate cycle in that China produces the most plastics and absorbs the most plastic waste in the world. Reading about yet another green initiative that China had taken on in the Green Fence Operation shows a strange dichotomy in today’s developing superpowers. Seen with places elsewhere on the globe like Curitiba, Brazil standing out in a country dealing with multiple other environmental issues, China shows once again that countries can move towards green initiatives without following the western world’s timeline. Although, the pressure that the Green Fence put on other countries’ dependency on China for plastic waste brings up an interesting consideration: which country will assume the role of the plastic waste dump if China permanently becomes stricter on plastic waste imports?

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  6. Very interesting post! As many others have stated, I had no idea that plastic waste processing was occurring at such a large volume in China. The concept of the the Green Fence Operation not only seems like a wake up call, but much like China is standing up to the rest of the world. Although China is considered a huge plastic producer, I feel that plastic waste processing is the responsibility of all consuming nations. Maybe the Green Fence Operation could inspire an international effort to strategically confront plastic waste processing, such that processing nations could use green tax initiatives much like the ones mentioned in chapter 2 of our books at the state level.

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  7. Very Interesting post! Like the other commenters, I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of this issue. I think that it is great that China is prioritizing the health and safety of it’s workers, who are ultimately the people who are most affected by these illegal operations and unregulated work environments. I would hope that similar concern would spread to other industries in the country facing similar issues. Since a major affect of the Green Fence operation in the United States is increased need for more effective inspection by recycling facilities before exporting the recyclables, this could be a good incentive to increase awareness of the issue of recycling contamination within the country. With more public education on the importance of keeping contamination in our recycling stream from both an environmental and economic standpoint, there would be less work and economic burden on recycling facilities to make sure that the recyclables being exported are to the standard they need to be.

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    1. Very intriguing post, I think it should be not only an economic but also a moral obligation for China to reduce its plastic footprint. Being one of the most populated countries in the world, China should be more focused on setting a standard for the rest of the world to invest in more efficient recycling facilities.

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  8. One thing I noticed that most of the exporting countries have in common is that they are mostly nearby islands with high population densities. I suspect that their need to export their waste comes from the simple reason that they don’t have the space for it in their own countries. China has no shortage of space, or labor, so it would make sense to utilize their economy to handle the remanufacturing process of the plastics rather than the individual smaller countries, but it’s not for other countries to decide what is best for China. From an environmental standpoint, plastics piling up in these island countries where it may find its way into the oceans is bad for the entire area, including China, but China could mitigate their own costs by imposing some sort of tariff that can simultaneously raise the funds for the processing infrastructure while working to promote less plastic consumption in the exporting nations.

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  9. Others have stated the same thing. I did not realize that China imported so much plastic waste. I wonder what the economic implications of Green Fence was. If something like this could in turn lead to a cap and trade policy for plastics or a plastics tax, much like carbon.

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  10. Wow! According to these comments that most of us college educated engineers did not know that our plastics were going to China (including myself), this field looks like it has a lot of opportunity for public education! Which is not surprising since I find many Americans do not think or have concerns about their trash after it leaves the house (probably simply due to that our system is out of sight and out of mind).

    This article also concerns me though, as they made a huge policy decision with little knowledge of how the plastic was actually being used in China. Im glad the Green Fence Operation pushed countries to not totally depend on China for plastic waste and maybe even reduce plastic production, but if good recycling processes were happening in China, why would we try to stop them when maybe we could have aided them?

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  11. Thank you for sharing. Like many others have previously stated, I did not know that China was such a big importer of plastic waste. In fact, I didn’t even realize that the United States exports plastic waste. It would be good to see this issue brought to the eyes of the rest of the citizens of the United States to see their reactions. With the innovative ideas and technological advances occurring these days, I feel like we can definitely find solutions to our domestic waste management problems, but I think it will take funding that might not be available right now as well as further research and development. Great post!

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  12. This article actually surprised a great deal. I was aware that China was a leading producer of plastic, however I was not aware that they were a leader in the importation of plastic wastes. This fact both comforts me and concerns me. The fact that China is willing to help surrounding nations with waste problems is great to see. However, when I was looking at some of the facts pertaining to plastic pollution in the ocean, which is usually the ultimate sink when it comes to plastic waste, I noticed that China was the leading producer of plastic waste in our ocean by a good margin. Of course we have to realize a couple of facts with that statement. One of which is that China is home to approximately 1.4 billion people, which is the most by any nation. The other being that China is so vast, that some of the rural parts do not have the infrastructure that some nations, like the US, has. However, despite this, seeing that they are such a strong importer of plastic, but yet a leading producer of plastic waste, I am curious to what specific practices they have to recycle these materials. Thanks for raising my awareness on this issue. This was a very eye opening article and invokes me to want to look more into it.

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  13. I really appreciated this post and being able to relate it back to previous classes and studies I’ve done! My biggest worry with the Green Fence Operation is its effect on the Chinese workers that were working on plastic separation. While the Green Fence Operation may have reduced the number of those working in these low profiting positions, what happened to the workers in those positions? Where did they go? How are they making a living now? I think a bigger focus in conjunction with this agreement is working with China on bettering working conditions and making sure all the workers are able to keep their jobs just with safer conditions. All in all great post!

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  14. The Green Fence Operation was not only a good wake up call for China but also for large suppliers of plastic waste like the US. I think that large suppliers need to focus on reducing plastic waste instead of worrying about where to send it. China is setting a great example for other countries to do better inspecting of plastic waste. Hopefully other countries will lead by China’s example and start being more concerned with the large amount of plastic waste! Great post, thanks for sharing!

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  15. The Green Fence Operation was the kind of policy I believe the world needed. When you have a system that is willing to overlook certain practices for a cheaper rate, countries are going to use it indescriminantely. Once implemented however, countries are forced to take a step back and really analyze how they are handling their waste. I believe that these kind of policies are a leap in the right direction for the world as a whole. I would be very interested to see what future changes China decides to make for any of their other waste products.

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  16. The Operation Green Fence seemed to really stress the quality of the recycling materials. Understandably so, as poorer quality materials could slow processing times, mess up machines and a slew of other economic problems. The quality of recycling materials at even a local level make a huge impact. So on a massive multinational level, the risks must be much higher. With the higher regulations comes higher the cost. This could be a scenario in which China could benefit from the higher processing costs paid by the other countries while also incentivizing the other countries to develop a stronger domestic recycling program. This could cut back on all the shipping to move recycling materials from one country to the next and improve the desire to develop more sustainable practices. The awareness of an improving waste quality would be a good campaign to push domestic growth as the flaws of curbside recycling programs make it more difficult and costly to sort and process the lower quality recyclables.

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  17. I was unaware that China is a leading processing country. The Green Fence Operation was definitely an eye-opening regulation that could lead to technological and economic advances given the right countries jump on the opportunities. I think it would be difficult to heavily implement processing in the United States because it will never be as cost effective as similar work in China. On the other hand, I think the other processing countries you listed (e.g. India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.) could use this as inspiration to develop better processing programs. If they are somehow able to balance costs and effectiveness, they could potentially take some of the business that once went into China and improve their country’s economic status. There is very much so a need for a renewed system of plastics processing. The concern is who is going to start it and how.

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  18. China reducing their plastic waste intake should have progressive effects on the recycling industry in western countries (US, UK, EU). It is most likely in the best interests of all countries that plastic waste be processed and dealt with on, or closer to, their own soil. The obvious benefit of this in terms of the environment is the reduced consumption of fossil fuels (and the resulting emissions thereof) related to shipping this waste across oceans. Additionally, this will ultimately promote the advancement of recycling protocols and technologies in western countries who, with the right motivations, can invest large amounts of money and resources into creating a more sustainable recycling industry within their respective borders.

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  19. Thank you for choosing this topic to write about; it is vital that as a citizen of our country and the world that we know where our plastic waste goes once we are through with it. I find it interesting that China is one of the main plastic producers as well as a leader in reprocessing plastic waste; these two facts seem to oppose each other. This juxtaposition sounds familiar as China is also one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases due to coal plants as well as a leader in moving towards renewable energy sources. Hopefully, they will continue to follow the trend they are following in energy with their plastic industry by moving away from producing more plastic and towards reprocessing plastic waste, just as they are moving towards renewable energy and away from coal-fired plants.

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  20. Great post! I am curious as to why China is such a big leader in reprocessing plastic waste. In other words, what exactly do they do with it and how do they benefit from it? If much of the waste that comes in is bought by “mom-and-pop” businesses and then resold to larger companies, there would obviously be some sort of markup on the price of the waste. I wonder how close this gets the price to if companies just bought the plastic material brand new. Interesting topic!

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