Plastics Watch: China to Ban Single-Use Plastics, Malaysia Rejects Waste Shipments

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

China announced this past Sunday it intends to implement a sweeping back on single-use plastics.

We now live in a world in which China has a more progressive plastics policy  than does the United States. Think about that reality for a second. China an environmental leader?

As Forbes tells the story:

The policy will ban the production and sale of disposable plastic tableware and cotton swabs by the end of 2020. Production of household products containing microbeads will be banned by the end of 2020 and sales of such products will be banned two years after that.

Single-use and non-degradable plastic bags will be banned in major Chinese cities by the end of 2020 and across the country by 2022. In addition, single-use straws will be banned by the end of 2020.

By 2025 the proposal, which was introduced by both the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, would ban all single-use plastics across the country.

The phased approach will allow time for China to ramp up manufacturing of biodegradable and alternate products to replace single-use plastics.

Part of what’s driving the Chinese decision is that China no longer has any place to stash its waste. According to Forbes:

The ban comes on the heels of China announcing that it’s mega-dump, the largest in the country is full 25 years ahead of schedule. The Jiangcungou landfill in Shaanxi Province is the size of 100 football fields and was built to receive 2,500 tonnes of waste per day. Instead, the landfill received 10,000 tonnes of waste per day.

Now, as in so many areas, the devil will be in the details, and it remains to be seen how effectively China will implement its ban. Per the NYT:

Previous efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags have faltered in China, but the government has indicated that, this time, it will be more serious and systematic in tackling the problem.

Yet the Chinese realize they have a problem, and have committed to doing something about it. Over to the NYT again:

“Consumption of plastic products, especially single-use items, has been consistently rising,” said an explanation accompanying the new guidelines, which were released on Sunday by the environment ministry and China’s chief industrial planning agency. “There needs to be stronger comprehensive planning and a systematic rollout to clean up plastic pollution.”

Of course, as I’ve written before, single-use plastics are low-hanging fruit.  But for the moment, the Chinese deserve credit for their policy. It will follow by only a couple of years the European Union’s lead on this issue. And China is lapping India. The Modi government promised  a nation-wide single-use plastics ban (many Indian states and cities already have such bans in place), but then backed away in October at the last-minute from following through in implementing it (see India to Ban Single-Use Plastics; Global Recycling Market Still Chaotic and note that India after all failed to implement the proposed ban). There is reason to hope that India will now follow through n its plans. Indeed, China’s action may be just the prod India needs.

China is one of the world’s largest producers of solid waste, as is for that matter, India, but on a per capita basis, each generates less waste than the United States, and surprisingly, Canada, which tops the table.

China Drives Global Recycling Market

In July 2017, China upended the world recycling market by refusing to accept most recycling imports, from the start of 2018. Other countries initially picked up the slack and saw their imports of foreign waste spike. Many saw their domestic recycling capacity overwhelmed, until they said: Enough!

Malaysia is merely the latest to see the light, and this week, announced it would send back shipments of foreign waste: According to PBS:

Malaysia has sent back 150 containers of plastic waste to 13 mainly rich countries since the third quarter last year, with the environment minster warning on Monday that those who want to make the country a rubbish bin of the world can “dream on.”

Shipments of unwanted rubbish have been rerouted to Southeast Asia since China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, but Malaysia and other developing countries are fighting back.

Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said another 110 containers are expected to be sent back by the middle of this year.

Yeo said the successful repatriation of a total 3,737 metric tonnes (4,120 U.S. tons) of waste followed strict enforcement at key Malaysian ports to block smuggling of waste and shuttering more than 200 illegal plastic recycling factories.

Of the 150 containers, 43 were returned to France, 42 to the United Kingdom, 17 to the United States, 11 to Canada, 10 to Spain and the rest to Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Portugal, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Lithuania, her ministry said.

The world market for recycling trash remains in considerable disarray. ,Many communities have had to restructure their curbside recycling programs, with 60 communities eliminating them outright (although public furore has led to reinstatement of some programs, according to Waste Dive.

Lack of Vision: US Plastics Policy

Yet members of Congress continue to have faith in recycling solutions – the more technically complicated, the better.

The US has yet to institute any national plastics ban, although California and Hawaii, and soon New York, have bans on single-use plastic bags in place or pending.

Nor has the US tackled the larger problem of excess plastics packaging, or the unnecessary use of plastics as a material altogether.

And it’s unlikely that any serious attention will  be devoted to these problems anytime soon, as long as the plastics industry is making massive investments to use Amerca’s fracking bounty.

US petrochemical companies have made large investments in plastics production, further developing both the Gulf Coat — a historic centre of such manufacture – and the Ohio Valley – a new location for producing plastics. With large investments being made to develop  ust Belt sites for plastics production,  it will be difficult to shutter new facilities – especially since jobs are scarce in the communities.

The Senate recently passed. the l=pathetic Save Our Seas Act 2.0. As I’ve previously written, this legislation is woefully inadequate, and relies on a combination of magical thinking as to currently non-existent technofixes, and plans to study the plastics problem to death (see Plastic Watch: Senate Passes Save Our Seas Act 2.0). We don’t need any more studies – anyone who is paying attention knows that the mountains of plastic the US is producing are a huge problem, both for the US and the rest of the world.

I can only quote again from a letter of opposition to Senate co-sponsors Sheldon Whitehouse and Dan Sullivan from many environmentalists which I included in my previous post:

We need Congress to pass legislation that reduces the generation of plastic, particularly single-use plastic packaging. This bill does not do that.

The public and a growing number of businesses are focused on the impacts of the entire lifecycle of plastic, from production, including fossil fuel extraction, to manufacturing, use, disposal – especially plastic incineration – and pollution in the environment. These impacts include significant and growing greenhouse gas emissions, toxic health impacts, plastic and microplastic pollution, degradation of water quality, damage to fish and wildlife, and the severe and too often unnoticed environmental justice impacts in communities where petrochemical facilities are sited. That is why hundreds of local governments, many in bi-partisan fashion, have adopted laws that ban or limit a range of plastic packaging such as plastic bags, polystyrene containers, plastic straws, balloons, plastic utensils and other single-use plastics. Beyond bans, we need a national law that reduces plastic generation, not just end-of-pipe approaches to manage plastic waste once it has been produced.

The primary focus of legislation addressing the plastic pollution crisis should focus on reducing the manufacturing and use of plastics – not attempts to clean it up after the fact. Your legislation directs a number of federal agencies to do studies, launches a Genius prize, and establishes a new Foundation housed at NOAA. While these efforts may have some positive impact, the bill ultimately approaches the issue as one of waste management, not overproduction of plastic, and risks further entrenching the systems that produce plastic rather than dislodging them. In particular, sections 305 (Study on repurposing plastic waste in infrastructure) and 306 (study on options to advance technologies for converting plastic waste to chemicals, feedstocks, and other useful products) are likely to expand markets for plastic waste which will then rely on a steady stream of plastic to stay viable. Many of these false solutions, such as incineration, waste-to-fuel, and pyrolysis approaches, are dangerous in their own right, and expanding their footprint on the American economy will only make phase out single-use and unnecessary plastic. …

And if we can’t do this, perhaps we can go at least as far as China, and ban single-use plastics, nationwide.

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  1. Daryl

    > China an environmental leader?

    It’s easy to beat the west in environmentalism, when you start from the position of “global warming is a real problem that needs to be addressed.”

  2. Samuel Conner

    I wonder if thermal depolymerization could be used, as an alternative to conventional recycling, to convert discarded plastic back into industrial feed-stock. There would be an energy cost which could be included as part of the price of synthetic polymer products.

    It would seem that some solution needs to be found for “what to do with the discarded waste.”

    1. inode_buddha

      The Dutch pioneered a system which does exactly this, about 20 years ago they were writing about it on slashdot. They converted the plastics back into pure oil and industrial feedstocks. They never achhieved break-even in terms of energy input.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      BP built a pilot project to do just this about 20 years at Grangemouth in Scotland. For reasons that don’t seem clear, it wasn’t a success. Lately there has been a big surge in investment in various techniques, but they all seem to hit the problem of being good for some plastics, but others proving problematic – and since so much plastics waste is mixed, this ensures they aren’t economic yet. In the long term, I think depolymerization is the only real way plastics recycling can make sense, but it all depends on the right technology being developed.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        I couldn’t agree with you more. So much of it is simply not necessary. And reducing or eliminating waste doesn’t rely on adoption of nonexistent technologies to be effective.

  3. Arizona Slim

    Just spitballing here, but I think we need a movement like the one that materialized against GMOs. Grassroots-driven. Highly vocal.

    You can see the results every time you go to the store. See all those GMO-free logos on the food labels? Direct pressure from the people in that movement.

    AFAIK, there still is no government policy against GMOs. At least no in the United States.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Years back in Europe there were campaigns where people simply took all the plastic off the goods they bought past the checkout in supermarkets, and left them there before leaving the shop. They were quite successful – its one reason that shops in Germany and Sweden are much better at collecting separated waste.

      I think its fair to say that consumer opposition is already having a strong effect in that lots of companies are going out of their way to do something/greenwash, certainly here in Europe, and the politicians seem to be getting the message, even right wing parties are pushing for stronger proposals.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        I read somewhere that there had been a recent resurgence of this practice in the UK. Haven’t heard about it spreading to anywhere in the US though.

  4. upstater

    The US does have a plastics policy — make more, burn more. How else do you explain the Shell and Formosa ethane crackers that will result in production of millions more tons of plastics?

    This was an interesting take on the City and State level legislation about plastics, from Politico:

    Plastic bags have lobbyists. They’re winning.

    “Only eight states ban single-use plastic bags. Nearly twice as many have laws protecting them.”

    (emphasis added)

    Doesn’t that say it all? And plastic bags are only a fraction of the problem.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Yes, excellent point – I should be careful to say in future posts that the US has no national plastics mitigation policy….instead, de facto, we have a plastics promotion policy, for manufacturers wish to sell us more and more of the stuff, and are expanding capacity accordingly.

  5. marku52

    OR just implemented a single use bag ban. Some city in TX tried to ban them, but the plastics lobby got it overturned at the state level

    Our legislators in Salem are pretty corrupt as well, but they are owned by the forestry industry, so we can ban bags but not stop clear cuts.

  6. TimH

    The Jiangcungou landfill in Shaanxi Province is the size of 100 football fields

    That’s really useful… using an area reference to give context to a volume.

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