Updated: Apr 10, 2020
China has released a proposal aimed at curbing its growing pollution and rubbish problem by banning all single use plastics by 2025. To date, more than 90 countries have similar restrictions (Tanzania and New Zealand recently implemented their own bans), whilst another 36 regulate single use plastics with levies and fees. Before we get into the details of how this ban will take effect and what it means for China, let’s explore the background of plastic waste in China to understand why China is taking a stance and acting on single-use plastics.
Background on plastic waste in China
With the largest population, China produced the largest quantity of plastic, at nearly 60 million tonnes in 2015. This was followed by the United States at 38 million, Germany at 14.5 million and Brazil at 12 million tonnes, according to ourworldindata.org. Mismanaged waste, which is material at high risk of entering the ocean via wind or tidal transport or carried to coastlines from inland waterways is becoming an increasing problem for countries like China. China contributes the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste with around 28 percent of the global total, followed by 10 percent in Indonesia, 6 percent for both the Philippines and Vietnam, according to stats reported by ourworldindata.org. Unsurprisingly, most of the world’s mismanaged waste is clustered in the South-east Asian region. The top 20 polluting rivers accounted for two-thirds – 67 percent – of the global annual river input, with the Yangtze River, ranked at the top of the list as the top polluting river, contributing approximately 333,000 tonnes of plastic input to the ocean in 2015, this makes up over 4 percent of annual ocean plastic pollution. This is followed by the Ganges river in India, with 115,000 tonnes, and Xi and Huangpu River with 73,900 and 40,800 tonnes respectively.
China’s new single-use plastic ban follows its decision in 2018 to ban all plastic waste imports. This decision had major ramifications for global recycling, as China handled a large quantity of the world's waste processing.
Background on the banning of imported plastic wastes
China's ban on single use plastics comes after it's complete ban on the imports of non-industrial plastic waste. As you may or may not already be aware, China has a growing rubbish problem.
But how much plastic waste did China import? The quantity of plastic waste China had to manage over the period from 2010 to 2016 may surprise you. Over this period, China imported between 7 and 9 million tonnes of plastic waste per year. To put this into context, China’s domestic plastic waste generation was around 61 million tonnes. Therefore, approximately 11% percent of China’s total plastic waste was imported from around the world.
This news comes after China's recent ban on importing waste recycling, which has already had significant repercussions in countries that rely on China importing their waste. The large volumes of recyclables that was previously imported into China has since put a spanner in the works for the global trade of plastic wastes.
The main exporters of plastic waste to China are high-income countries which rank in the top 10: this includes Japan, USA, Germany, Belgium, Australia and Canada who are all major plastic exporters.
China has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, and with this recent implementation of a new policy banning the importation of plastic waste, the question is where will all the excess plastic waste go? The practice of selling plastic recyclables to China was profitable one, made possible by China’s low labour costs and favourable rates for cargo shipping vessels that exported China’s consumer goods abroad, which would otherwise return to China empty.
However, these new measures are not unheard of. China has been increasing restrictions on its plastic waste imports since 2007 when it first implemented its “Green Fence” program – a temporary restriction for plastic imports with significantly less contamination.
What will be included in the ban?
China's single use plastic ban comes as China attempts to tackle one of the country’s biggest environmental problems.
According to the proposal, which was introduced by both the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, all single-use plastics across the country will be banned by 2025. The ban will occur in several phases. The policy stated that plastic bags including single-use and non-degradable plastic bags would be banned in all of China’s major cities by the end of 2020 and then expand to all cities and towns across the country by 2022. The exception is markets selling fresh produce, which will be exempt from the ban until 2025. By the end of 2020, the restaurant industry will be banned from using single-use straws, whilst the production and sale of plastic bags less than 0.025mm thick will be banned, as will plastic film less than 0.01mm thick for agricultural use.
The ban will roll out in several phases. By the end of 2020, the country will phase out production of foam takeout boxes, plastic swabs, and products with plastic microbeads. Caterers will have to stop using plastic straws. In key cities, plastic bags and tableware will also be banned by the end of the year, and the ban will expand to more areas by 2022. By that year, delivery services in some cities will have to stop using plastic packaging, and the ban will then extend to other areas by 2025.
The ban applies to “nondegradable” plastic bags, tableware, and other plastic packaging, and the plan also talks about encouraging the use of biodegradable plastic for some products. That might not sound like a bad thing. The WEF estimates that consumption of single-use plastic items by the restaurant industries in towns and cities will need to be cut by 30% by 2025.
However, there is one worry. Compostable plastic only breaks down successfully in industrial composting facilities. “In China, there are few facilities to do this,” Chang says. “We’re worrying that maybe China’s going to be flooded with single-use biodegradable plastic all over the place in the next few years.” Huge food delivery companies, such as Meituan Dianping and Ele.ma, could decide to pay for biodegradable plastic forks and boxes rather than trying to shift customers to a potentially less convenient system of reusables. The same could happen with online shopping companies, another major source of plastic waste.
One study estimated that in 2017, online food delivery in China generated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste, including 44,000 tons of plastic spoons, 175,000 tons of plastic chopsticks, and 1.2 million tons of plastic takeout boxes.
This is a major effort by the government to reduce plastics and waste in major cities in order to curb the country’s growing pollution problem. The question now is, how will Chinese consumers adapt to this new policy? Despite the ban occurring gradually in several phases, how will everyday consumers respond to these changes? What behavioral shifts will we see in customers? Will they accept these changes? Or will they simply find alternatives that turn out to be just as environmentally unfriendly, and possibly even more unsustainable than single use plastics? We will be watching the situation closely over the next few months to assess the implementation of this new policy in key cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and comment on the effectiveness.
(Written by Lena Chen)
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