Although Europe prides itself on being one of the leaders in sustainability, much of this success has relied on the exportation of waste elsewhere, particularly to China. For example, in 2016, the EU collected 8.4million tons of plastic waste, of which 1.6million tons were sent to China. As of the beginning of 2018, Beijing stopped accepting 24 types of foreign waste, including plastic scraps and mixed, unsorted paper. This decision has left many countries, both within and outside of the EU, struggling to find alternative ways to deal with their waste.
Reports state that to deal with this issue, several different ideas have been proposed. The EU, for example, are considering a tax on virgin plastics to be put in place to encourage the recycling of plastic packaging. The UK has been looking at diverting the waste stream to Southeast Asia, and the US have requested that China lift the ban. In the first quarter of 2018, China’s imports of solid waste fell by 54%, while countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, showed a spike in waste imports, showing that many countries are just shifting where they send their waste, instead of addressing the underlying issue.
This is not a long-term solution. The countries exporting their waste need to address the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude they have towards waste and begin working on real solutions to reduce the quantities of waste being produced, instead of searching for a new dumping ground.
Although the ban is a good step forward for the Chinese environment, it has a risk of causing large environmental problems for the countries previously relying on China. This is due to the likelihood of a backlog of recyclable waste which may be incinerated or dumped in landfills just to remove it from the waste stream. It does not help that these countries were only given 6 months from the announcement of the ban to the implementation of the ban in which to begin to work out an alternative for the masses of waste that will no longer be exported.
Overall, this ban is likely to go one of two ways. It could lead to countries that previously relied on the exportation of waste focusing on developing their domestic recycling industries and addressing the issues of our wasteful society; or it could result in a backlog of waste being disposed of unsustainably just to get it off the streets, alongside being sent to other countries that do not yet have the infrastructure to deal with such a large waste stream.