A Chinese embargo on scrap plastic imports has undercut shipments from developed nations to a low not seen in more than 13 years, a Nikkei study shows.
But because the waste is still being produced at the same levels, exporting countries are stuck with an accumulating and increasingly expensive problem.
Waste plastic exports from Japan, the U.S. and the European Union dropped to 1.7 million tons during the latter half of 2018, a level last recorded in the first half of 2005. Since 2009, those nations have shipped out between 3 million and 3.6 million tons of used plastics every six months, but the volume skidded to 2.31 million tons in the first half of last year.
China used to be a choice destination for waste plastics since exporters did not need to clean or sort out the plastics — they were accepted as is. But the pollutants produced by the recycling process pushed the Chinese government to drop the hammer, and an import prohibition on plastic scrap was imposed at the end of 2017.
That set off a ripple effect throughout the international recycling chain. Scrap plastics were initially diverted to Thailand and Vietnam.
Exports to the entire Association of Southeast Asian Nations economic community eventually ballooned to 1.23 million tons during the first half of 2018, more than triple the volume from a year earlier.
The inundation overwhelmed the recycling capacity in ASEAN countries, prompting import caps and higher tariffs. Those measures shrank scrap plastic exports by half in the second half of 2018 from the first half.
With nowhere else to go, Japan and Western nations had to deal with the used plastic themselves. But because expanding internal recycling capacity had been treated as an afterthought, backlogs started to accumulate.
Trash plastic exports from the Port of Long Beach in California have fallen to a sixth of the volume from three years earlier. There are signs that recycling plants in the U.S. state are committing to extra capital investments. But many more of California’s recycling centers have closed over the past five years due to lack of profitability. Recycling pickups have ceased in a growing number of communities.