Waste not Want not?: China’s Waste Ban and Global Consumption

Know that feeling when you are out, just finish a drink and are about to throw it away when you realize there are no recycling bins around? Okay, maybe a trashcan will do—can’t find that either? And then you spend the hour carrying around your trash? Well this is sort of the predicament Western countries are in now.

Last July, China’s government announced that the country would no longer accept foreign garbage, “洋垃圾,” under a certain quality after January 2018 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and health dangers brought by tainted waste. The ban includes 24 types of solid waste including unsorted paper and low-grade plastics used in plastic bottles. Previously, China was the primary importer of Western countries’ recyclable materials. From 1995 to 2016 the country’s imports of waste increased tenfold. New restrictions on imported recyclables, ensuring the batches are less contaminated, has stressed exporting countries which have relied on this business. For reference, each year Britain sends 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of recyclables to China, and scrap plastics is the 6th-largest American export to China. Additionally, port inspectors are now understaffed, meaning that the imported materials are stuck at ports and slowly seep through, if approved at all.

Increased inspections began in early 2013 with Operation Green Fence, an enforcement of laws to restrict imports of contaminated waste. Since then, in China, restrictions on waste and recycling imports have intensified, creating a rippling effect in surrounding regions as countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam increase their imports despite having significantly less waste management capacity than China. Now experts fear that if items cannot be sent to China to be recycled, they’ll be sent to landfills. Additionally, without a large imported supply of recyclable materials, Chinese manufacturers may use virgin materials which burn more energy and emit more greenhouse gases in production processes.

Waste buildup in Hong Kong. Photo from: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2017/12/china-s-recycling-import-crackdown-sparks-hong-kong-pile-ups/

Increased Consumption = Increased Waste

The previous post briefly explored how increased waste generation accompanies economic development. Another cultural change that occurs in early stages of economic development is consumption of forest products. While this consumption might include printing paper (for notebooks, text books) and decreasingly for magazine or newsprint, now consumption trends include growing amounts cardboard and tissue. Previous scholars have suggested the existence of an Environmental Kuznets curve for waste generation (at first as economic development occurs, large amounts of waste are generated, but at a certain inflection point with economic development, waste generation decreases.) But these studies have not taken place recently and don’t account for the exploding ecommerce culture.

Ecommerce has provided an opportunity for more cardboard and shipping container use. In China, this trend has exploded especially with online sales promotions by the ecommerce giant Alibaba for holidays like “Single’s Day”, which racked up more than $18.1 billion in sales last year. Additionally, hygiene ideals change with economic development leading to consumption of items like disposable tissues and wipes.

Laborers work at a paper products recycling station in Shanghai
Waste sorting at recycling facility a few days after Singles Day in Shanghai. Photo from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-singles-day-waste/china-faces-waste-hangover-after-singles-day-buying-binge-idUSKBN1DH0WO

Much of Western countries’ exported mixed paper and cardboard gets manufactured into packaging materials in China, often for products shipped back overseas. Now, however, due to the import restrictions, Chinese companies are facing a shortage of materials to make boxes, so ecommerce sites such as Alibaba are “running out of boxes” and turning to other countries like Vietnam to get materials. On the shopping site Taobao, one corrugated box retailer stated that cardboard box prices had nearly doubled since last August.

Social Impact and Going Forward

An additional impact of this ban hits those who are already struggling—elderly recycling collectors (“cardboard grannies”) and scrap dealers in Hong Kong. The waste ban has sent scrap dealers scrambling to find buyers elsewhere to no avail. In Hong Kong, the street value of cardboard has plummeted, strangling scrap collectors, who are already disadvantaged by operating in an informal economy without security nets.

Scholars often suggest that developing countries’ economies can “leapfrog” and skip over mistakes developed countries made. But in this case, we are entering uncharted territory–a new age of consumer patterns where with a click of a button a package can be delivered within a day and the cardboard wrapping promptly discarded. How can this consumption be reduced, and how can cardboard materials be produced and used sustainably?

The virtual marketplace continues to evolve with no demise in sight. With exchange of goods now so far removed from the physical impacts in reality, and with new consumer markets emerging across the globe, we return to the question posed in the previous blog post of how we can make consumerism less consumptive. We’ll have to think out of the box for this one!

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