Plastic that goes into the recycling bin is now far more likely to end up in a landfill, according to the authors of a new study.
The world will soon be dealing with a glut of plastic waste equivalent to 21 times the mass of the Great Pyramids at Giza, with no obvious strategy available for recycling it.
A new study estimates China’s decision to stop accepting nearly half of the world’s recyclable plastic will displace approximately 111 million metric tonnes of plastic waste by 2030. That will leave developed countries with little choice but to landfill their recyclables, invest in new domestic facilities or ship the plastic off to developing nations that currently lack the infrastructure to handle additional imports.
“Without bold new ideas and system-wide changes, even the relatively low current recycling rates will no longer be met,” said study co-author Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia.
“Our previously recycled materials could now end up in landfills.”
Plastic does not biodegrade in the environment. Instead, it’s worn down over decades into minuscule bits called microplastics, which have been found in Canadian waterways and in the guts of fish.
Scientists and environmentalists say there’s no known way to eliminate these microplastics from the environment, but recycling can help keep the levels from rising much higher.
The world’s recycling bin is closed
The world’s wealthiest nations have been selling most of their plastic waste to China for several decades. China would typically pay for the shipments, sort out the unusable materials and then re-process the plastic for use in its massive manufacturing sector.
The study authors estimate China has accepted more than 105 million tonnes of plastic waste since 1992, and that China and Hong Kong have imported more than 72 per cent of all the world’s plastic waste over that time. Much of Hong Kong’s plastic waste ends up in China, they say.
However, Chinese society has begun to move away from its heavy focus on manufacturing, while its citizens are producing more plastic waste of their own.
The economic shift has left China with plenty of domestic plastic for its manufacturing sector and little need for difficult-to-process imports from abroad.
The Chinese government slammed the door on imports at the end of 2017, following years of rumours that such a move was imminent.
The decision caught many nations off-guard, including Canada, where municipal governments have been scrambling to find new buyers for their stacked-up recyclables.
The Canadian government urged other members at the Group of Seven meeting earlier this month to sign on to a plastic charter to reduce plastic waste.
Only about nine per cent of the world’s plastic waste is successfully recycled, the study authors say.
Nevertheless, China’s withdrawal from the recycling business is expected to have wide-ranging, hard-to-forecast outcomes for the rest of the world.
“It’s hard to predict what will happen to the plastic waste that was once destined for Chinese processing facilities,” Jambeck said in a news release.
“Some of it could be diverted to other countries, but most of them lack the infrastructure to manage their own waste, let alone the waste produced by the rest of the world.”
Too much plastic
Thailand, Malaysia, India and Vietnam have started taking on some of the plastic waste burden, but those countries don’t yet have the capacity to deal with all of it, the study authors say.
Lead study author Amy Brooks said much of the waste will likely get incinerated or sent to landfills.
“This is a wake-up call,” she said.
“That waste has to be managed, and we have to manage it properly,” added Brooks, a doctoral student in engineering at the University of Georgia.
China accepted an estimated 5,451,304 tonnes of plastic waste in 2016 alone, according to the study authors.
The top exporter was Hong Kong, which shipped 1,778,898 tonnes of plastic waste to China in the same year. The United States ranked No. 3 with 842,102 tonnes of plastic exported.
Canada was the 10th-highest exporter to China, with shipments amounting to 189,161 tonnes.
The Canadian Plastics Industry Association recently called for more domestic facilities to be established for recycling plastic waste.
“The market is tighter,” Joe Hruska, vice-president of sustainability at the CPIA, told Global News last month.
“It takes time to implement that capacity.”
Several nations have tried to crack down on plastic waste by enlisting product manufacturers to take responsibility for the waste their items produce.
Some governments have also banned the use of plastic bags and straws.
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It’s estimated that a dump truck-load of plastic waste enters the ocean every minute, or eight million tonnes every year.
Erik Solheim, director of the United Nations’ Environment Programme, recently called for governments to take major steps to cut back on the amount of plastic waste being produced and dumped into the environment.
“Let there be no doubt: we are on the ege of a plastic calamity,” he said in an op-ed for The Guardian.
The study was published in the journal Science Advances.
With files from Reuters