For decades, China has been an open door for foreign waste, importing recycled material from around the world to help feed its manufacturing boom. In 2016, the country imported 7.3 million metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries. However, this is all about to change. Last year, the country notified the World Trade Organizationits intention to ban 24 types of solid waste material by the end of 2017 — including unsorted paper and plastics.
This crackdown on imports, known officially as China’s National Sword programme, took complete effect on 1 January 2018. But already, some recycling companies are scrambling to find alternative markets for their waste, particularly for lower-grade or heavily contaminated materials. There are growing fears — especially in the US, Europe and UK — that such recyclables may have to be temporarily stockpiled or even landfilled.
Part of China’s plan is to restrict waste imports of a contamination level to just 0.3 percent — although recent reports suggest this level could be relaxed slightly. In light of these restrictions, Joan Marc Simon, director at Zero Waste Europe, says Western economies will need to step up their efforts to produce higher-quality recyclates, which means separating waste materials at source and investing in better recycling sorting facilities.