Waste to wealth

6th April 2018

P20 china credit getty

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  • Waste


William Alhadad

Could China’s ban on the import of certain types of plastic waste present an opportunity for other nations to profit? Dr Uche Okere reports

For years, China and Hong Kong have provided an outlet for waste plastic from countries around the world. In 2016 alone, developed countries including the UK, the US and Japan reportedly shipped 7.3m metric tonnes of waste plastics, valued at $7.3 billion, representing 56% of the world’s recycled plastics to China.

In July 2017, China announced significant changes to the quality control measures it applies to imported materials, resulting in a ban on 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of the year. Unsurprisingly, considering the dominant role of China in the market, this ban has created concerns about the fate of the world’s waste plastic.

As of January 2018, the impact of the ban was already being felt, with reports of increasing plastic stockpiles that may end up in local landfill sites or for incineration. In the UK, the chief executive of the Recycling Association told the BBC that the ban is a huge blow for the industry and that the UK simply does not have the market to deal with its waste plastic.

While the negative impacts of this ban are easy to identify, could other nations benefit and develop their own manufacturing sector by becoming the new choice destination for plastic waste?

China became a global force in manufacturing by, among other factors, taking advantage of globalisation. It grasped opportunities created by the West’s predominant decision in the 1980s, under Reagan and Thatcher, to position their economies as service providers rather than manufacturing economies. For China, importing cheap waste plastics from around the world as raw material for its manufacturing industry provided a solid base for the industry to grow.

Surely, there are nations around the world who could also grow their manufacturing industries as a way of boosting their economy, by using the waste no longer exported to China.

Current indications are that South-East Asian countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand will take on most of the plastic waste, owing mainly to their proximity to China and the availability of cheap labour. African nations like Nigeria and South Africa could also muscle their way into this market.

The ideal and best outcome from China’s decision will be a global reduction in the generation of plastic waste, as pressure increases on manufacturers to take responsibility for their waste products throughout their life cycles. The reality remains that humanity is still years away from being weaned off its plastic habit, and the amount still currently in circulation must be dealt with one way or another.

Lessons to be learnt

Whether the current global economic conditions can facilitate the rise of a nation’s manufacturing industry as it did for China in the 1980s will be a significant consideration for any nation that may wish to view China’s ban as an opportunity to take in some of the world’s waste plastic. They must also deal with the question of what to do with the imported waste in light of the growing awareness of the environmental impacts of plastic.

Lessons must be learnt from the huge health and environmental costs paid by China in developing its manufacturing industry. Such nations must also be willing to develop relevant infrastructure such as power as well as the labour laws needed for economic growth.

The UN sustainable development goals provide a holistic picture of what sustainable development should mean.

In nations where dealing with the human impacts of poverty and economic inequality are a priority, environmental protection objectives may never be achieved. However, if a nation can, like China, work its way out of poverty, then maybe, like China, they too can eventually enact laws and take steps to improve their environmental behaviour.

Dr Uche Okere is the academic lead for environmental management at the University of Derby Online Learning

Image credit: Getty

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