Podcast: Sorting out China’s plastic waste

China is generating more plastic waste than ever, but its collection system is struggling to keep up

Closeup portrait woman hand throwing empty plastic water bottle in recycling bin.

China’s informal waste management is being replaced, but there’s no guarantee that large companies and state-owned enterprises will be able to fill the gap (Image: spukkato)

So you thought your recyclable waste was going to a local processing plant? Instead it was very likely shipped to China, along with about half of the world’s exported plastic waste. However, in January 2018 China decided to ban plastic waste imports and end this charade. Western countries are now forced to deal with their own waste. But what motivated China to shut down an industry so many of its citizens depended on?

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Episode 3: Sorting out China’s plastic waste

Guests:
Mao Da, Rock Environment and Energy Institute
Chen Liwen, Nature University ENGO
Christine Loh, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

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Episode 3 transcript: Sorting out China’s plastic waste

Marcy: This is Eight Million – a podcast series that looks at the eight million metric tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year – and what role China plays in addressing this global challenge. Eight Million is produced by Sustainable Asia and its partners chinadialogue and Aya Recording Studio.

Marcy: Previously on Eight Million…

Nick: We have to look at establishing fundamental collection and recycling in many of the economies that are currently estimated to be the largest contributors of this plastic.

Christine: I think the Chinese government has been travelling on a path of thinking about what they want China to be – a vision for China.

Marcy: Hi. This is Marcy Trent Long. I have lived in Hong Kong for the past 20 years and watched the increasing amount of disposable plastic really alter the fabric of our oceans and beaches here. As someone who sails and is an avid open water swimmer, plastic waste has really changed the way I look at the quality of life here. And as more of my friends here in Asia start using the ocean as their playground, they too are seeing plastic as an unpleasant and unnecessary result of our convenience-driven lifestyle.

The goal of this podcast series is to reveal the inner workings of plastic waste management in China – so that I can make some sense of the impact that China is having on ocean plastic.

In the last episode we saw how rivers play a critical role in transporting plastics into the ocean. We also talked a bit about how the wheels of China’s government engine work to enforce new environmental policies. For this episode, we will move on land to China’s waste management process, following the plastic waste to the waterways. I spoke with Mao Da, one of China’s leading Zero Waste advocates and founder of the Nature University NGO in Beijing. He summarised the problem:

Mao Da: 因为这个塑料垃圾最直接的入海原因就是从江和河流…

Voiceover: Rivers are the main source of plastics in the ocean, and in China the rivers run through the endless countryside, where waste collection is not as prevalent as in the cities. The lack of good collection and processing of plastic waste is the reason why plastic from China ends up in the ocean.

95%

of rural waste never reaches a treatment centre.

Marcy: While some countries struggle more with finding a place to put all their trash, in China the problem is mainly the lack of systems and infrastructure to collect and sort the waste. According to a recent report by McKinsey and Ocean Conservancy called “Stemming the Tide”, an average of 65% of waste gets collected in cities, but the rural areas lag behind with an astounding 5% collection rate. 95% of rural waste never reaches a treatment centre. But that’s not to say all is rosy in the cities either with the growing urban population and a changing lifestyle contributing to what Mao Da calls:

Mao Da: 空前的危机

Marcy: An unprecedented crisis.

Marcy: The World Bank estimates that China generates almost 200 million metric tonnes of waste every year – about the same as the US but much more than India. And China’s waste generation is expected to grow 50% faster than the global average.

A lot of factors contribute to this phenomenal waste production; of course there is the growing population, but the newfound wealth has also led to a changing lifestyle.

Mao Da: 那么这部分的垃圾在中国来讲,我们现在的塑料包装物

Voiceover: Plastic packaging is becoming a larger and larger share of our garbage pile. We now notice new consumption patterns like online shopping and food delivery are increasing our demand for plastic even more. This is what is making China’s plastic problem hard to contain.

Marcy: But with all this trash, and much more on the horizon, China was still importing millions of tonnes more trash from developed countries. Container ships full of unprocessed trash would sail into Hong Kong and other ports, leaving their freight for China to sort and recycle. Until January this year. A few months ago China announced they would institute a ban on imported unprocessed waste – effectively announcing they will no longer be the world’s garbage collectors.

I asked Mao Da: why this sudden decision?

Mao Da: 这个政策我觉得是一系列的大的环境政策、环境治理改革的一部分

Voiceover: This is part of a series of major environmental policies and government reforms. There are several reasons for this ban. First of all, there have been countless studies on the polluting and harmful effects of the recycling process in China. This had to be dealt with after dragging on for so long. Now that China is transforming and elevating the economy, the value of recycling imported waste is quite low compared to its offsetting negative impacts. So we should see this as part of a larger reform.

Another reason is our international image. The Chinese public sees this import of foreign waste as humiliating. This ban turns the negative international image we had into a more positive image, we are showing developing countries that they don’t need to accept the West’s pollution anymore.

The scope of the import ban is very broad. All waste plastics from non-industrial sources are prohibited. Even though our own plastics recycling industry would like to keep receiving clean plastic bottles, which are very valuable and have a smaller ecological footprint. The fact that the state has banned all – even clean – plastics, shows that there are some other considerations at play. I think this ban is a strategic decision to promote the development of domestic waste sorting. We generate more garbage than any other country, so why do we still import waste from abroad to fuel our recycling industry? The reason is simple: China’s waste sorting system is lacking.

Marcy: China is generating ever more waste, but the waste sorting system hasn’t moved with the times.

Chen Liwen: 在中国,其实,塑料的回收主要是拾荒体系…

Voiceover: In China, sorting and recycling is done by the informal sector. This means small businesses or even just families, collecting rubbish from a certain area and separating the waste, selling what can be recycled to processing centres. Then these centres sort the waste further and deliver it to recycling plants.

Marcy: Chen Liwen, a colleague of Mao Da at the Nature University NGO, is describing what is called waste picking, which happens not only in China but all over the developing world. But as China moves into the ranks of the developed world, the central government is changing its approach to waste. Christine Loh, who spoke to us about China’s environmental plans in our previous episode, had this to say:

Christine: We see in Hong Kong that the people who are doing this kind of job are on the whole more elderly. In Hong Kong what is extraordinary is that this informal sector – if you look at it for what it is: it’s generally older people going around dustbins and collecting stuff over the years. That informal system, somehow, has actually managed to extract about 35% of the waste stream for recycling. It is quite extraordinary. However, you cannot depend on this going forward.

As education and public awareness increases, we want people to be better protected if we’re dealing with waste. So that means the costs are gonna go up. Also with digitalisation: weight and volume become very important because every city you have to set targets of what you’re gonna do with different types of waste. So you need to know. It’s no longer possible in the longer term to rely on this informal sector who’ll probably find it extremely difficult to do digital recording as well.

Marcy: It is not only the economic reforms that are changing the world of waste picking.

Mao Da: 过去的、改革开放以来这40年…

Voiceover: Since the economic reforms started 40 years ago, the recycling industry has relied on these private recyclers. It comes from a market demand, because the state-owned recycling industries were unable to deal with all the renewable resources. It’s a natural process, and has been very efficient. But a lot of these waste pickers feel marginalised because they lack the urban resident status, so they are always discriminated against in the city.

Mao Da: 对于城市的垃圾来说,遭遇了更深刻的危机…

Voiceover: With no one taking care of the waste, the cities turned to large companies and state-owned enterprises to fill the gap, but these lack motivation and an understanding of the recycling process. I’m not saying these enterprises won’t slowly gain the experience and properly fill the gap, but for the moment we are dealing with an unprecedented crisis.

Marcy: So the central government is forcing change through sweeping legislation; Xi Jinping stated in 2019 that China should be sorting its waste. And voila! A new law by the State Council was produced and by 2020, 46 cities have to achieve a 35% recycling rate for the commercial and government sector waste. This includes commercial office buildings, hotels, government buildings, schools… but still does not include household waste. And then there’s the question of enforcement. Chen Liwen raised some good points about this:

Coloured waste bins for different categories of waste (Image: weibo)
Coloured waste bins for different categories of waste (Image: weibo)

Chen Liwen: 我,其实,其实它,住建部去年的四十六个垃圾分类场主城市…

Voiceover: Actually the 35% recycling regulation does not clearly state what they should recycle. This is a big problem. Also China’s garbage statistics are not yet counted accurately. So it will be difficult to measure the 35% recycling because if you don’t know the base amount of waste for the city, and it is unclear what the recycling waste categories are.

Marcy: The waste import ban can allow China to focus internally, but in addition it puts developed countries on alert to do the same:

Mao Da: 既是敲响了警钟,又是提供了一个新的方式…

Voiceover: Looking at the global reaction, especially from environmental protection agencies, this import ban has actually raised the alarm. And not just an alarm, but also a new approach, namely that the export of environmental pollution can’t be continued. Developed countries cannot solve their own environmental and resource problems through export. This is actually a positive thing. If every developing country would do this, then plastic can be dealt with in an environmentally friendly manner.

So this plan helps both developing and developed countries. It can allow developing countries to reject foreign waste and take care of domestic recyclable resources; and developed countries can finally face what’s been ignored for so long: the insufficient recycling capacity in their own countries. If we can focus on redesigning plastics in an ecological way, and develop a circular economy, all countries will benefit from China’s decision.

Marcy: Since the introduction of the waste ban, developed countries who relied on this trade are scrambling to find new places to dump their waste, or otherwise increase the capacity of their recycling industry, In our next episode. We will look at how we can make recycling more efficient, so we can increase the recycling rates, and catch the ball China threw in our court.

Marcy: This podcast was brought to you by Sustainable Asia.

Eight Million was produced by me, Marcy Trent Long, and the multi-talented Sam Bekemans.

We could not have pulled this podcast series together without our amazing audio engineers Carsten and Annabat Martens of Aya Recording Studio.

Our logo and social media outreach was by Kinsey Long.

And special thanks to our voiceover artist Keon Lee, audio assistant Daniel Suen, and our wonderful partners at Chinadialogue: Isabel Hilton, who helped formulate the idea for the project, Charlotte Middlehurst and Christopher Davy, for their editing skills, and Huang Lushan for stepping in with interviews and translation.

Share this podcast with your friends and colleagues! Education and collaboration are our best path for creating a Sustainable Asia.

Find the series on ITUNES | SOUNDCLOUD | SPOTIFY