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.
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?
Sources and More Information:
- International Solid Waste Association, Report from the ISWA Task Force on Globalisation and Waste Management
- Recycling Magazine, https://www.recycling-magazine.com/2017/05/30/panic-china-turns-screw-plastic-scrap-imports/
- E-Scrap News, https://resource-recycling.com/e-scrap/2017/06/29/china-continues-to-clamp-down-on-scrap-imports/
- US Census Export and Import Statistics, https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/index.html