How China screwed over the global recycling Ponzi scheme.
And now we're all dealing with the consequences.
China: The world’s Recycling Bin
I came across this topic thanks to two episodes of great podcasts, one is episode #926 of Planet Money and the other one is episode #341 of 99% Invisible.(If you are not subscribed to any of those two podcasts please do, the quality of production and the amount of FUN you have listening to them is just *chef’s kiss*) Both of which talked about the global waste export market, and how China was the world’s largest buyer of plastic and other types of recyclable waste, and how one policy in 2017 wrecked the global status quo.
It all started shortly after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 (probably one of the most effective and influential multinational institution in this century) it rapidly became the manufacturing hub for most of humanity, and as the global supply chain moved forward, it meant a whole bunch of container ships with products leaving Chinese ports were emptying themselves all over the world.
But the problem was that once the containers were emptied out of products they weren’t getting filled on their way back to China, and nothing is more important than efficiency in this life, so different Chinese entrepreneurs (one of them was even the first female billionaire from China) came up with this brilliant idea. China started buying plastic and recyclable waste from the US and other countries to fill this export/import gap on the empty containers, and bring in materials for different manufacturing processes.
Drowning the Dragon
But, it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for this recycling scheme. China was importing plastic waste from countries such as the US, some European nations, and other places. And these countries were lowering their levels of waste on paper, and having a gold star in global rankings regarding recycling when in reality they were actually SELLING off their waste to China in hopes they would figure what to do with it and take the responsibility out of the countries producing the waste.
Which is a crappy policy when you think about it in the long term, specially when you consider the already exponentially increasing amount of waste china was producing because of the great uplift of such a large number of humans from extreme poverty.(of course most of this built under the oppressive boots of the CCP’s regime while exterminating ethnic minorities and ,who knows ,maybe also creating one of the largest economic debt bubbles we’ve seen in history considering it’s railway system, and property industry… but let’s not talk about all of that for now…)
Sword Act Online
So considering that, the Chinese regime decided to change that policy of eagerly receiving and (hopefully) processing the waste from wealthier nations because, it already had enough on its plate with their own recyclables. In 2017 China put in place what they grandiosely named “Operation National Sword”
With that simple decision the global supply chain of recyclables and waste got completely messed up in such a way that to this day it is still recovering from the shock. And that is because much of the recycling industrie (like 90% in some cases) relied upon Chinese companies purchasing paper and plastic waste from them. But ever since ONS (oh god, thats a BAD acronym , nope not gonna use that one again) was implemented, rules regarding the types of waste and how “dirty” the waste had to be to be accepted by Chinese authorities changed.
This meant that China was only receiving clean waste without contaminants and a total ban on non-industrial paper and plastic waste(this meant mainly that they will be only accepting waste from industrial processes that were clean, so no more used plastic forks and carton plates are going to be accepted)
Which of course was a huge blow to a $200 billion dollar industry(Thats larger than the entire music industry and book industry combined) most of the recycling industry that had relied for the past years their entire business models on Chinese buyers for dirty waste which is cheap to “get” and process for export but now the costs were piling up and the entire industry had lost a key buyer, and trash is pilling up higher and higher.
The world after National Sword Act
And that’s not it, thanks to this huge shift a lot of companies and countries are looking for other eager receiving nations to now be importing the waste from them, so much so that waste exports from the U.S. to Thailand exploded 7,000% from 2017 to 2018 and the trend seems to be stabilizing.
But wait! here comes a new challenger into the waste import market. Ever since 2018 Latin America (the land of Reggaeton, corruption scandals and re-electing convicted criminals as presidents.*yay*) has become one of the top destinations of plastic waste even overcoming asian countries in 2021.
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And we can see see the impact this has had in the region, thanks to weak regulation and a lackluster display of the enforcing agencies, private companies in the region have been buying waste, (mainly from the US) and then, instead of processing all of it, dumping most of it illegally in landfills. And we can see for example the Chilean Atacama desert overnight became the worlds largest ilegal landfill for fast fashion.
Why is it a Ponzi scheme?
Well , I guess it’s more of a mis-regulated market more than anything but you gotta keep the titles clickbait on purpose so I can pump those numbers up!
But in all seriousness Greenpeace ( I know I don’t love them but they do some good work once in a while) recently released a report which shows us that in the US,(and probably many other countries) that less than 5% of plastics are actually recycled. So where the hell is the rest of the plastic? Well, EVERYWHERE microplastics in placentas, floating islands of plastic in the ocean, and apparently now even in the rain and the air we breathe. As Galadriel said “I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air”
So what now?
I believe we need a new mindset to approach this topic because plastic is a miracle of material. We build it from the carbon remains of organic matter and transform it into a resistant material that doesn’t rust, is not brittle, can be easily cleaned, can be shaped into almost any form, and can be reused into new products using the same raw material over and over again.
Also hopefully the impact of National Sword joint with other regulations push the price of recycling upwards which would push for investment in innovation to be more profitable than exporting and dumping it illegally in some other country. But that’s a stretch, if we can’t agree on the climate crisis I’m not optimistic about global regulation regarding this
But this is a complicated issue with many MANY points of views beyond the shallow “It’S aLl ChInA’s FaUlT” or “It’S aLl BeCaUsE oF cApItAlIsM” there are a wide array of pathways towards solutions and decision that will affect the lives of many people all over the world, so please let me know what you think of this topic down in the comments.