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China’s Disturbance of the Plastic Status-Quo

Millions of tons of plastic became dislocated when China closed its borders to the imports of developed countries’ waste in 2018. As the country had been storing the imported plastic waste on its land for decades, global waste management was severely turned around with this ban. Two-thirds of global plastic waste that used to be disposed of in China now had nowhere to go. Many countries are still struggling to manage their waste independently, as no one is willing or capable to take the once China’s role fully. However, China has not been taking a hostile stand on foreign plastic only. The country’s government announced just last month that it would ban various single-use plastic products. The ban will take place gradually, with 2025 as the target year for the nationwide implementation of the new policy. 

For a country with 1.4 billion people, any large-scale environmental policy is likely to have significant effects. For instance, if the newly announced plan does succeed, this will mean that billions of plastic bags and chopsticks will not be produced every year nor end in landfills or oceans. On the other hand, due to the country’s enormous population size, these policies are also susceptible to the risk of being infeasible. Hence, the progressive nature of China’s recent ban on single-use plastic seems to be a cogent choice. 


As the first step, non-degradable plastic bags will be banned in major Chinese cities by the end of this year. This will be extended to all other cities and towns by 2022. Open city markets will have more time to adjust but should adopt degradable packaging alternatives until 2025 as well. Restaurants will have to stop using single-use plastic straws by the end of this year and reduce the use of other single-use plastics by 30% until 2025. Hotels will not be allowed to offer any plastic single-use items by 2025. The food and package delivery industries are also directly targeted by the ban. Food, clothes and other goods ordered online arrive in boxes and containers that are usually not reused and their packaging tends to be rather excessive in order to ensure a safe arrival and customer’s satisfaction with the order. Considering the expansion of the food delivery industry in China, which counted for more than 10 billion deliveries throughout 2018 and possibly even doubled last year, the government also ordered to eliminate all production of plastic takeout boxes by the end of 2020. Besides the takeout boxes, plastic swabs and products containing plastic microbeads will not be produced anymore either.

According to some Chinese industry experts, the resulting expansion of the market for more sustainable and degradable plastic substitutes will encourage technological innovation, lead to cost reductions and enhance the performance of substitutes. The phased design of the policy should ensure a relatively smooth transition to new materials, preventing the occurrence of market gaps. This is important because China currently generates the largest amount of plastic globally and has been experiencing a substantial increase in consumption with its expanding economy and population. Thus, appropriate substitutes produced in sufficient amounts are an absolute necessity for the plan to be successful, which cannot happen overnight. 


New materials bring new challenges. Large investments in composting technologies and infrastructure will be needed if the plastic ban results with replacing non-degradable plastic with the compostable one. Even the so-called compostable plastic does not naturally degrade in normal circumstances. Therefore, investing in industrial composting facilities, which China is currently lacking, will be of vital importance. If these will not be built on time and the new types of plastics will end being thrown away improperly, the excessive accumulation of trash resulting from the disposal of packaging materials will not be mitigated. Moreover, a lack of proper recycling in the country increases the chances of new materials being inadequately managed and ending up in landfills or nature. Only around 22% of post-consumer plastic is currently recycled in the country, the insufficiency that a single ban will not resolve.

Another concern put forward by local environmentalists is that a mindset shift is needed rather than just a transition to new materials. The new ban can send a misleading message to Chinese citizens that the single-use consumerist culture is fine as long as the materials used will be composted. Instead, what the environmentalists claim should occur is a shift towards reusing and recycling by both businesses and consumers. Despite the inconvenience this may initially cause, it is a more future-oriented and viable solution than merely searching for more sustainable materials that will be wasted in the same amounts. 


Although the strict stance of China on non-degradable plastic is far from being a panacea, the country’s move is bold. As the most populous country in the world and the largest generator of plastic, the consequences of the ban could come far even if not all goals are met. New materials such as the compostable plastic will open numerous opportunities for the advancement of knowledge. Hopefully, if the new policy is met with competent management, China will set an inspiring example for other countries as well.


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