China just handed the world a 111-million ton trash problem and itвЂ™s only going to get worse
Few peopleВ consider used plastic to be a valuableВ global commodity. Yet China has imported 106 millionВ tons ofВ old bags, bottles, wrappers and containers worth US$57.6 billion since 1992, the first year it disclosed data. So when the countryВ announced last year that it finally had enough of everybody elseвЂ™s junk, governments the world over knew they had a problem. They just didnвЂ™t know exactly how large it was.
Now they know. By 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of used plastic will need to beВ buried or recycled somewhere else вЂ” or not manufactured at all. ThatвЂ™s the conclusion of a new analysis of UN global trade data by University of Georgia researchers.
EveryoneвЂ™s bottles, bags and food packages add up. Factories have churned out a cumulative 8.3 billion metric tons of new plastic as of 2017, the same Georgia team reported last year. Even one million metric tons,В the scale thatВ thisВ material traffics in every year, is hard to visualize in the abstract. ItвЂ™s 621,000 Tesla Model 3s. ItвЂ™s 39 million bushels of corn kernels. The worldвЂ™sВ 700 million iPhones make up roughly a tenthВ of a million metric tons.
Nearly four-fifthsВ of all that plastic has been thrown into landfills or the environment.В AВ tenth of it has been burned.В Several million tons reachВ oceans every year, sullying beaches and poisoning vast reaches of the northern Pacific. Just nine per cent of the total plastic ever generated has been recycled.В China took in just over half the annual total in 2016, or 7.4 million metric tons.
As the industry matured and the negative effects on publicВ health and the environment became clear, China gotВ more selectiveВ about the materials it wasВ willing to buy.В A вЂњGreen FenceвЂќ law enacted in 2013 kept out materials mixed with food, metals or other contaminants. Exports consequently dropped off between 2012 and 2013, aВ trend that continuedВ until last year, when the worldвЂ™s biggest buyer warned its scrap plastic purchases would stop altogether.
Other nations, such as India, Vietnam and Malaysia, have taken in more plastic, although with an appetite smaller than ChinaвЂ™s. Vietnam recently suspended imports as ships clogged its ports.
The worldвЂ™s plastic problem has been buildingВ for decades. Since mass production began in the early 1950s, annual output has grown from about 2 million tons to 322 million made in 2015, the authors said. Current production rates are exceeding our ability to dispose of the stuff effectively вЂ” and supply is only expected to grow.
вЂњWithout bold new ideas and management strategies, current recycling rates will no longer be met, and ambitious goals and timelines for future recycling growth will be insurmountable,вЂќ they wrote.