Recycling is important, right? Guess what? On January 1st, 2018, China put a strict ban on imports of almost all foreign waste, including recyclables. No, that is not a typo.

If you are thinking ‘so what?’, you might not know that almost all countries farm their recyclables to China.

July 18th, 2017: China wrote to the World Trade Organization to say that by the end of the year, it would no longer import a wide range of waste, including:

  • plastics.
  • waste paper.
  • waste textile materials.
  • other forms of solid waste.

So, what’s happening now?

You guessed right! The trash is piling up. You probably had no idea that every country previously relying on China is now at a complete loss.

  • Hong Kong faces a ‘growing mountain of waste’ in the wake of China’s trash ban.
  • The EU will have to confront its ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to its mountains of garbage.

“All the sorting centers are clogged, our stocks are exceeding the allowed limits,” said Pascal Gennevieve, head of paper at Federec, the federation of French recyclers, and director of recycling at French waste management giant Veolia. “Right after the Christmas peak, we had a lot of paper and no export solution. All European plants are full, saturated.”

  • The UK recycling ‘not dead in the water’ but needs to rethink its recycling because of China’s ban.
  • Canada is in a bind thanks to China’s tough new recycling standards.

The world relies on China to recycle. No other country has facilities of its scale. Not one.

When your country’s recycling scheme can’t find a home for your waste (such as China or another SE Asian country), that waste goes to your own landfill. And, of course, incineration is next.

Why is China refusing this waste now?

What China found was that recycling is not sustainable for them.

Maybe that seems too simple for a nation that stands to buy billions of dollars of your waste every year.

According to CBC News: The National this ban actually stemmed from one documentary called ‘Plastic China’ produced by Jiuliang Wang, about families who delicately, dangerously live off what we throw out.

Millions of Chinese saw the film deeming it viral. Of those millions, one VERY IMPORTANT person was reported to watch the film: President Xi Jinping.

He was horrified by the thought that this practice was taking place in his country. His belief was now that we need to cut off waste imports, totally. Not long after, China communicated the ban. The film was then quickly taken off the internet in China. If you don’t live in China: Watch Part 1 + Part 2

If it’s so profitable, why has China found recycling to be unsustainable for them?

For starters, they cannot handle the demands of BOTH foreign waste imports (which are astronomical) AND their own waste issues. So, they’ll focus only on their own from now on.

Second, 40% of containers of the millions of tons imported per year were contaminated. People in the countries facilitating recycling pick-up were incapable of ensuring that people knew and understood that the trash had to be sorted and cleaned in order to be in proper conditions to recycle.

👉🏻 Since 2001, the world went from 3 bin to single bin curbside collection. This move impacted the quality of recycling exports extremely negatively. Contamination sky rocketed. So did the participation rate of recycling, only adding speed to a very VERY bad idea. Lack of regulations on exporters by your governments behalf resulted in VAST amounts of it landing in the oceans and landfills.

Curbside recycling with blue bin collection systems has been found to be dramatically ineffective with a new National Geographic study showing: “China remains without fully developed waste management systems. An estimated 1.3-to-3.5 million metric tons enters the oceans from China’s coastline. Between 2010 and 2016, imported plastic waste to China added an additional 10 to 13 percent to the country’s domestic waste, increasing China’s difficulties in managing its garbage. ”

Containers considered contaminated would be exported from China to other countries with less stringent laws. Those countries would then, if they could not salvage things, dump what was not salvageable into landfills or the ocean.

Yes – 40% of what you thought you were being an angel for collecting wasn’t clean enough.

Collecting and sifting is too expensive so it gets tossed or sold to other SE Asian countries.

Imagine throwing a bunch of paper in a plastic bag to recycle that paper, but throwing it into the recycling bin with the plastic bag. Guess what: China can’t process that kind of waste.

Third, with a 40% loss to contamination, and the havoc that the recycling process wreaks on China’s natural resources such clean drinking water – well, China is tired of being the waste dump for the world.

Your country might collect recyclables, but the majority outsources the actual recycling part. Why?

Because the toxicity of the recycling process is harmful and damaging to the environment.

That’s why it went to China.

In anticipation of the world flipping out about the ban, China set itself up to police illegal trash importations with ‘Blue Sky’.

Knowing the world might retaliate in illegal ways because of this ban, China has assembled Blue Sky 2018. Effective February 2018, ‘Blue Sky’ serves as a 10-month long period of ‘special actions against foreign garbage smuggling.’ How clever.

Where is all this coming from? China has turned a new leaf and has a new Environmental Ministry.

Illegal importation has already been happening in all secondary markets.

Here is how the markets have changed for plastics in Q1 of 2018.

For example, the US alone has exported 5X what it previously sent to Malaysia, 25X what it did to Thailand, and almost 2X as much to Vietnam. Those amounts in just the first three months of this year.

Illegal imports have already begun running rampant in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Back to China, even though you knew air pollution was killing China’s own people – you really didn’t realize how bad it was…

Cancer hotels are on the rise in Beijing as patient numbers soar.

According to the latest figures, there were nearly 4.3 million new cancer patients in China in 2015, including 730,000 cases of lung cancer (from pollution), accounting for 36% of the world’s total. Cancer is responsible for about a quarter of Chinese deaths and has become a massive burden on the country’s medical system.

The hotels, which mostly operate informally, don’t provide nursing but put patients closer to medical services and experts, and give them a place to cook and share tips with fellow patients.

Despite their name, they are not traditional hotels, but furnished units in residential blocks near medical facilities, charging as little as 40 yuan (HK$50) a night per room. And while they occupy a legal grey zone, doctors often refer patients to them, and state-run media have published glowing articles about them.

From Cancer Hotels to Plainly Taking Over 600 miles More Ocean Rights in the South China Sea

Due to pollution, China cannot fish in the South China Sea for up to 80 miles.

Wait, who owns the oceans and seas?

You may not know this but the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) says that a country may claim an area extending 12 nautical miles from its coast as its own territorial sea.

Additionally, a country can exploit 200 nautical miles of the water column beyond its coast as its exclusive economic zone.

The same applies to the first 200 nautical miles of the sea floor, the continental shelf. The resources found there can be exploited by that country alone.

The majority of the oceans belong to NO ONE or EVERYONE. We don’t know.

Here’s the China claim line compared to the surrounding islands who follow the regulations.

Here it is again in more detail:

They’ve had to extend the Chinese South Ocean rights to 800 miles because there is a strong competition over depleted fish stocks. And that’s adding fuel to tensions over territorial disputes in the area. Plus, there’s oil and other things involved. They still need to feed their own billions of people. Right?

The reaction of the global political community to the ban?

Even in the face of this catastrophe and despite knowing that waste is piling up at ports on boats with absolutely nowhere to go, we still hear things like this:

“Theresa May, pledged to eliminate avoidable wastes within 25 years…”

This is not a problem that is about to become a problem.

This is a full-blown global failure on behalf of all countries who assumed their problems were solved by initiating recycling based on one sole provider: China.

China’s move reveals three things very evidently:

1. The world is addicted to plastic with no action plan on what to do about it.

2. Curbside recycling as a waste-management practice without quality standards by the exporting nation can damage the environment in many ways down the line.

3. Recycling is not a foolproof solution for preventing plastic from being dumped in the ocean.

Those are three very strong points. Last time I checked, any single thing in the world that kills humans gets recalled. Not plastic, though.

Animals are dying and soon humans could so we can drink a soda at Subway or Frappe at Starbucks.

They found micro-plastics in human stool for the first time.

Who’s doing anything remotely worth paying attention to in plastic reform?

  • Brussels: is going to war against plastic garbage. The spur for Commission action was China’s decision to bar waste exports. The EU also wants to crack down on microplastics — minuscule bits of plastic less than 5mm in size. Brussels is considering a ban on intentionally added microplastics found in cosmetics, body washes and paints. It also wants to carry out more research into unintentional microplastics, like the rubber worn off tires.
  • France is the first country to ban plastic plates and cutlery. Also, France is implementing a .10 cents on every grocery item that is not made with recyclable waste by 2019. This will cause consumers to pick between brands who use responsible packaging and ones who do not. It will also increase the demand for recycled goods bringing value back to the market.
  • Kenya implements world’s toughest plastic bag ban: four years jail or a $40,000 fine. Producing, selling and using plastic bags becomes illegal as officials say they want to target manufacturers and sellers first. The result? Sorry to all the folks out there with this HUGE PROTECTIVE nature over human rights – it’s working. And working well: Eight months on, is the world’s most drastic plastic bag ban working?
  • Sweden reports that the UK ‘could adopt’ Norway’s bottle recycling system.
  • The UK is banning plastic straws and is asking Canada to do the same.
  • Chicago’s IEC (Illinois Environmental Council) is currently investigating whether their recycling is ending up in landfill or what exactly is happening with requests from citizens to open up investigations.
  • Chicago’s DIRTT movement launches #StopSucking. Want to take action for a strawless ocean?
  • The UK plastics recycling industry under investigation for fraud and corruption

Countries running out of trash to recycle?

It’s hard to imagine but Sweden is so good at recycling that, for several years, it has imported rubbish from other countries to keep its recycling plants going.

Less than 1% of Swedish household waste was sent to landfill in any year between 2011 and 2017.

What is deterring countries from implementing appropriate measures?

First, corporations say they are recycling.

For example, your electronics. Turns out they were merely getting paid for the pieces.

A Shocking Amount of E-Waste Recycling Is a Complete Sham.

Secret GPS trackers show how sham e-waste recyclers profit by dumping America’s toxic garbage on developing nations.

40% percent of all US electronics recyclers testers included in the study proved to be complete shams, with our e-waste getting shipped wholesale to landfills in Hong Kong, China, and developing nations in Africa and Asia.

Second, green implementation on a local scale requires immense capital and investments. Here, yet again, China is one step ahead:

Trying to fight pollution, China is now the world’s largest issuer of ‘green’ bonds:

  • China is set to become the world’s largest issuer of green bonds in 2017.
  • That will be the country’s second time topping the list, after bursting onto the scene in 2016 to overtake traditional green financing giants such as the US and France.
  • China is the world’s largest carbon-emitter and needs around 2 trillion yuan a year to reduce pollution, its central bank estimated.

Still, think disposable plastic is OK if we recycle it?

Out of sight, out of mind is over.

25-year action plans on phasing out plastic – is that a joke?

There’s plastic in our fish at grocery stores.

There’s plastic in our salt. In our poop.

How much evidence of plastics in places it should not do a society need to prove it has a failed system on its hands?

Worse yet: humans can avoid plastic ingestion through education. But animals are defenseless.

Sincerely, thank you China. This is the wake-up call the world needs. Let that trash pile up inside the countries who produce it.

Last few questions to ask yourself, friends and colleagues:

  • Who’s responsibility is it to ensure that recycling exports are clean – the exporter or the importer? Should your nation hold itself accountable for producing clean waste at .05% contamination? Or is it better that we have waited for China to dump 40% of it into their landfills and oceans?
  • If it is equal responsibility, who is responsible for the 5 waste gyres in our oceans when we so heavily contributed to mismanaged landfills along China’s coast for 17 years?
  • If your recycling is still being picked up right now, do you think it is fair that your recycling center charges you one rate ($75 in the US per ton) for recycling but then you don’t know how much of it is landing into landfills? If 50-100% is being landfilled, shouldn’t the fee be adjusted considering the average fee in the US is $52 per ton to the landfill? Less in some states and more in others.
  • At what point should the government make announcements that recycling centers are failing and either PAY or NOT PAY their bills to hold them over. Is this a blip or a market crash we are experiencing. Remaining markets are increasing contamination rate acceptance levels like China and/or banning certain waste indefinitely? Not to mention, China has been warning us since 2013.
  • Do you think it makes sense to provide jobs and technically more trash stuck in recycling to nations who already contribute to 80% of the world’s ocean waste because only 40% of Asian and SE Asian’s have managed waste. The remaining 60% use rivers and oceans as their landfill? Do you think a nation should prove it’s abilities to manage 100% of it’s own waste before it imports more?
  • Based on the amount of waste that is currently in the oceans – 8B tons per year landing in there – are the jobs we provide Asian and SE Asian nations to sort and process recycling better spent managing and picking up their own waste versus focusing on ours? What is the cost-benefit in relation to cleaning out the oceans TODAY versus having it stopped from going there for the last 30 years? In essence what would have happened if we stopped exports sooner and invested in our own policies starting 30 years ago?
  • Do you think curbside recycling needs to be reinvented, removed, and possibly held responsible for the above damages?
  • Do you think curbside recycling is efficient considering it cannot and will never create clean waste based on expenses that nobody can gauge based on zero accountability? We will never know which consumers put the right things into the bin versus the wrong. Exporting nations do not hold themselves to meet clean waste standards based on consumers also not be held liable for putting the right thing or wrong thing into the bin meaning the waste could be any kind of level of dirty. How can we rest assured that it is indeed clean and sorted regardless of what consumers put into the bins based on any consistent rate?

If all of the above is true and there is immediate evidence that direct deposit schemes create 100% more participation than curbside and guarantee clean waste without any additional sorting by your nation or any other SE Asian poor person making 50 cents a day?

What’s it going to take to convince curbside to stop picking things up at people’s houses and have consumers become responsible based on bringing in waste that is clean for cash?

What is it going to take to have curbside pick it up at grocery stores and other direct deposit machine spots?

What is it going to take to get them to stop spending exorbitant amounts on gas for trucks that will have a reduced their routes by about 50-70%?

How will you convince your government that the taxes they collected from the estimated 500,000-1.2M employed in the US to facilitate recycling are not worth their time?

If direct deposit machines sort and prevent dirty and wrong objects from entering a bin in the first place – what is going to happen to the almost 1500 sorting centers we have?

Who is going to fire all the hired help to sort it at sorting centers?

What will they do with their machinery, facilities, and land? Is it fair for Malaysia to have to shut down 114 illegal recycling centers and have exporting nations not lose or sacrifice anything?

How are you going to convince your government to not roll back emissions from increased incineration to unruly landfills when all markets close for recycling?

Incineration or waste burning is equal to or worse than coal emissions. In China, 1200 people die a day from waste burning related cancer.

What are you going to do about all of this?

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About the Author:

Hi, my name is Corinne Meier and I am CEO of MMG: Meier Marketing Global – Built to Last and I am usually found deep in the abyss of trends for all things digital, government, culture, and economy. I am hot on how micro-shifts in thinking lead to macro-shifts in user-behavior. I apply this collective wisdom when I counsel SMB to Fortune 500 on how to navigate consumers ever-changing preferences. If you prefer Twitter, please follow me there.

Thank you so much for listening to my thoughts and please don’t forget to share yours with me in the comments below!