Thinking in Circles

Read the full story at Q Magazine.

On Jan. 1, 2018, the People’s Republic of China stopped accepting shipments of used waste plastics from around the world. Though it made some headlines, this about-face didn’t turn the world as we know it on its head – or at least it hasn’t yet. As far as most of us knew, in the first week of 2018 we dropped our garbage in the trash can, and our recyclables in the recycling bin, and they went to the same places as the week before.

Up until January 2018, China processed about half the global supply of used plastic, metals, and waste paper. At last, Beijing decided that this waste’s impact on China’s environment and public health was too great, largely because of hazardous waste mixed in with the usable waste, as well as the increasing cost of labor to sort it. So the waste ban (officially called the “National Sword”) was put in to effect, blocking the import of 24 waste types, including plastics that are low value or hard to recycle.

China took in so much of this waste from the West that, when combined with e-waste, it had become the “world’s garbage dump” in the eyes of the Chinese government. As the country grew wealthier, there was little appeal in sorting through dirty, unwanted waste for recyclable and financially valuable materials. So if it was no longer profitable, what would China gain by continuing to take the West’s waste? Frankly, not much.

With that in mind, we have new and urgent questions: What about that waste that’s no longer shipped to China? Where does it go now?

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