China’s Done Recycling Our Plastics. Where Do We Put 250 Billion Pounds Of Waste?

By Eric Betz | June 21, 2018 1:56 pm
Wealthy nations send most of their recyclables to developing countries. (Shutterstock/Mohamed AbdulRaheem)

Wealthy nations send most of their recyclables to developing countries. (Shutterstock/Mohamed AbdulRaheem)

The world is truly awful at recycling. Less than 10 percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled — the rest goes to landfills and litter.

And of that sliver of plastic that we do recycle, about half of it is shipped from wealthy nations to developing ones — especially China. Together with Hong Kong, China has imported nearly three-quarters of all global plastic waste in recent decades. And that’s how we ended up in this current mess.

End Of Recycling

Last year, China’s “National Sword” policy threw worldwide plastic recycling into nosedive. The nation banned imports of non-industrial plastic waste through 2030. The result? Some 250 billion pounds of plastic must now find a new home. That’s according to a study led by the University of Georgia and published Wednesday in Science Advances.

No one’s sure what will happen to all that plastic now. And China’s lost interest in recycling other materials, too. That stuff could be diverted to other countries, but most lack the infrastructure to recycle their own waste, let alone billions of tons from around the world.

“We’re going to have to develop more robust recycling programs domestically and rethink the use and design of plastic products if we want to deal with this waste responsibly,” study co-author Jenna Jambeck, an expert in plastic waste at the University of Georgia, said in a media release.

Recycling Not As Profitable

Since the early ’90s, China’s taken hundreds of billions of tons of plastic waste and turned it into packaging and raw plastic they can re-sell. And China’s processing fees were so low that the world was happy to ship their waste to the other side of the world.

But in recent years, as plastic has dropped in quality, it’s gotten tougher for China to turn a profit on recycling. At the same time, the rapidly-developing country is also creating more of its own plastic waste, which lets them just recycle and reuse domestic product instead of relying on imported recyclables.

The change has caused plastic recyclables to pile up in storage centers waiting on a solution, or for plastic prices to become worth it again. But, so far, there’s not an obvious end in sight. If no one steps up to solve the problem, an even higher percentage of plastics will now end up in landfills.

“Without bold new ideas and system-wide changes, even the relatively low current recycling rates will no longer be met,” Jambeck said.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Mike Richardson

    In the past, government subsidized oil production. Now, it may be necessary to do the same for recycling the plastic products created by that industry, though in a perfect world, the industry that benefited from those past subsidies should help bear the cost of plastic disposal.

    • Charles Barnard

      Unfortunately, many decades after the oil industry no longer needed subsidies, we are STILL subsidizing them.

      And yes, as creators of the problem the industry bears a responsibility and should bear the brunt of the developmental costs. They are also the ones most likely to benefit financially from a cost-effective method of recycling.

      • John Thompson

        The oil industry pays a higher tax rate on their profits than the national average.
        The “subsidy” argument is false. Alternative energy actually gets the real subsidies.
        In fact, the heads of alternative energy companies went before Congress and stated under oath that their massive subsidies had to continue or they “could not exist” because their products are not economically viable without the subsidies.
        There are no real oil subsidies, and of course they are not needed to make oil viable.

        • Charles Barnard

          They pay way below market for the in ground leases.
          They don’t pay to clean up their messes.
          They don’t pay to clean up the waste from their products.

          Those are very valuable items, trillions of dollars worth.

    • Uncle Al

      Anything government touches transforms into expensive counterproductive crap, then recursion. Trumps continuing astounding triumph arises from turning off government at every scale in every venue.

      • Mike Richardson

        LOL! Trump and “astounding triumph?” I think you should have substituted his name for “government” in your first statement if you’re going for accuracy, instead of humor. I suppose that thin line between genius and insanity has vanished altogether.

        • John Thompson

          Gov’t has a much bigger record of failure than success, most of what Gov’t does is failure.
          So a Gov’t doing less is better since it means less failure.

          • Charles Barnard

            Prove it.
            Where are the numbers?

      • jonathanpulliam

        Jerusalem is only Israeli in the sick, degenerate, formaldehyde and wood-alcohol-marinated pea brain of your degenerate Pedo-Hero Adolf Trummpler

  • Maia

    We can use a lot less plastic, re-cycle almost all of it, use it make bus and park benches, coathangers, furniture, fences and thousands of other things …if we make up our minds to. Could charge for plastic bags and containers, offering free clothbags, encouraging glass jars for storage, re-use of glass. Offer more $ for re-cyclables, stop making non-recyclable plastics, especially the one-use kind, and any other “throw-away” things such as one-use cameras and phones…the list goes one.

    • Charles Barnard

      It’s a lot easier to do that when the people making the products and pushing them aren’t also making the laws.

      • Maia

        Indeed! And it would help if more than about one quarter of eligible voters actually voted.

        • Uncle Al

          No, fool. It would help if only 20% of the citizenry voted, the top 20%. Every great civilization exploits slavery. Slaves may not vote themselves free or rich.

          • Maia

            Your sarcasm is so thick it’s hard to see through it and be sure to know what you intend. BUT if I understand your intention to point to the way that the non-voting 80% are going along with the 20% that would love them to stop voting and just click on their own manacles, get to work and shut up….then I agree!

          • Mike Richardson

            Sadly, in the context of his many other posts, I’m not so sure he IS being sarcastic.

          • Maia

            I know. Usually don’t respond, but…something made do it! :) Hermes??

          • CB

            He’s not being sarcastic, he’s posting for attention.

            Uncle Al (Xemist) is what is known as a couch N*zi.

            These are people who post the most vile thing they can imagine, because it’s the only way they have ever been able to get anyone to pay attention to them.

            He’s well-known for making openly racist and anti-Semitic comments.

            It’s best to downvote and talk over him.

          • Mike Richardson

            I think he may want to restore the “tr” after the “X” in Xemist, for truth in advertising. You are right about his well-known habits, as well as the best way to respond to him most of the time.

        • CB

          “it would help if more than about one quarter of eligible voters actually voted.”


          There are ways to fix that, you know.

          You could go out in real life and register your friends and neighbors to vote.

          It’s not that hard.

          vote. gov

          • Maia

            Not addressing my volunteer activities which are full up in other directions. I was addressing the general problem that the US has the lowest voter turnout among “developed” nations. Something there to be addressed besides registering, though I am in favor of DMV automatical registration…that does not in any way guarantee people will actually vote.

          • CB

            “that does not in any way guarantee people will actually vote.”

            It’s true!

            …but not registering guarantees that they won’t…

            Unfortunately, the Dunning-Kruger effect ensures that the most competent people are the least likely to feel they are able to make an informed choice.

            We need to work against that. Everyone needs to vote. In every election. It shouldn’t be thought of as optional.

        • John Thompson

          Half the people by definition are below average intelligence.
          So how would more of them voting improve anything?
          What about the people living on the dole? Should they vote?
          They can’t even run their own lives but they should vote and decide how Gov’t run’s my life???

          • Maia

            Very hubristic attitude, to say the least. Do look up what “democracy” actually means, and that will tell you who should vote in a “for the people, by the people” kind of government. Then get back to us.

    • Uncle Al

      YOU sacrifice for the greater bad fueling government regulation. Civilization exists for my low-cost happiness. Rape the Nanny State.

    • John Thompson

      So why does this article use pounds instead of tons?
      About like how they tried to use gallons of oil in the BP spill instead of barrels.
      Without the hype/propaganda – we have a simple issue of storing the plastic in landfills for later use.
      If plastic lasts so long then we have a long time to get back to it to use it in the future, when new techniques and technology will exist.
      Since we mine out far more materials each year – perhaps as we mine out an area it could be a repository for the plastic.

      • Maia

        Because there’s always more forests and praries to “mine out”, since wildlife and ecosystems are infinite. (Not.)

  • Charles Barnard

    Plastic is made from oil and can be degraded back to small hydrocarbons again using a process similar to the cracking that split up the original oil.

    But the oil companies never developed that process, nor did their plastics subsidiaries.

    But there is no technical block to breaking the stuff back down, it just costs energy.

    And colly gee, there it is up in the sky, our first fusion reactor, generating and giving us thousands of times more energy than we need.

    • Uncle Al

      Learn some organic chemistry, thermodynamics, and process engineering before flapping your pie hole. Nothing is facile and things don’t reverse.

      2016 US ethylene production was 32.2 million tonnes. That is beyond your comprehension – as are its consumptions, Four steam crackers came online in 2017, adding more than 5 million mt/year. Tell us about the pipe that moves the ethylene.

      Youtube v=flMS2gHFOH0

    • CB

      “it just costs energy.”

      I want to say not even. As I recall, HDPE has a higher energy density than diesel!

      If we weren’t turning it back into liquid fuel, we could always burn it. Need to make sure you keep the nasty vinyls out of it though…

      • Charles Barnard

        I would never turn hydrocarbons to fuel if there were and alternative–they are far more valuable as chemical feedstocks.

        Regardless of the burned energy content of the plastic, it takes energy to break the bonds and return it to light hydrocarbons.

        • CB

          “Regardless of the burned energy content of the plastic, it takes energy to break the bonds and return it to light hydrocarbons.”

          You have to spend some energy to reform it, this is true… but you could always burn some portion of the plastic to supply the energy to reform the rest…

          I agree, it would be better to use the plastic as a chemical feedstock, I just don’t think many people realise plastic can be used as fuel.

          • Charles Barnard

            Under most circumstances, it shouldn’t. In particular the most common PVC’s.

            But yeah, all the polyethylenes are only a step away from candle wax.

  • stargene

    Where to dump it? I suggest a nice pre-existing waste repository called
    Trump Towers.

    • Uncle Al

      The DNC loves trash.

  • Uncle Al

    Where Do We Put 250 Billion Pounds Of Waste:” Zero ash, zero sulfur, hydrocarbon – directly burn it as fuel, Enviro-whining idiots, instead of burning corn.

    0) Segregate organic waste, landfil,l then methane recovery.
    1) Pull PET – valuable. Pull glass – energy cost versus raw materials.
    2) Ferrous alloys separated by magnet.
    3) Other metals separated by Lenz’ law – linear induction winding.
    4) Burn the remainder.

  • OWilson

    Look around you, and consider the plastic that YOU are using in your daily life. It may surprise you.

    From your appliances, food products, computers, furnishings, transportation, household tools, maybe even your clothing and underwear!

    Even your recycling containers!

    It also stops your pants from falling down :)

    The very collection and recycling of plastics is a very expensive process that ironically consumes a lot of oil.

    Until; we find a substitute for plastic your local Walmart will continue to be a massive plastic waste contributor, and folks will line up to bring it home.

    They’ll even brawl for it on Black Fridays :)

    • Maia

      Yep, that’s an important part of what I am saying, too. Another part is working for laws that help this along, for citizens, government (all brands and stripes!) and corporations. Have I left anyone out?

      • OWilson

        I don’t need your laws!

        I live in the islands, with an almost zero carbon footprint.

        No heat, air conditioning, no car. Routinely, I walk to everything, and eat only locally grown produce.

        And I’m tired of being lectured by the likes of Al Gore, and his minions of followers who show up here on these blogs, demanding “something should be done”, about their own wasteful lifestyles.

        “Somebody save us from ourselves, please!”


        • Maia

          You are not the world, I fear. And I am not Hollywood, thank heavens.

          • OWilson

            I’m doing my bit! :)

            I walk the walk!

            Are you?

          • Maia

            I walk my talk, as you do. Our walks may not be identical. But I am not looking for politicians to fix anything! This is a democracy, though, so people (who are the government, last time I checked the founding documents) ought to be voting. Pretty radical!

            Which “y’all” do you have in mind? You seem to have met me and known all about me without me recalling the occasion. That’s amazing!

          • OWilson

            Just a humorous collective (see the smiley?) for those who believe that that big government operates in the best interests of the people, and that people can be regulated into doing the right thing.

            The ones demanding voter participation and organizing “voter drives” and “voter registration” too often have ulterior motives, that relate more to their own pet political proclivities, than a simple wish for universal engagement.

            I’m all for voting, but in a democracy it should be voluntary. If things aren’t going well, they’ll come out and vote for change, has we have seen!

          • Maia

            :) Ulterior motives show up pretty much everywhere on the political spectrum. Even in ourselves…where we, hopefully, can catch them before they do much damage! Then we keep on walking the walk, as you say. Making the path as we go, to (roughly) quote the poet, Machado.

          • OWilson


          • Mike Richardson

            Very good advice. Perhaps one day you’ll wake up to irony, and heed that advice. :)

          • OWilson

            Here’s Mikey, trolling dead threads after the adults have all left the building, with one last insult! :)

            Don’t forget to turn out the lights! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            It’s less an insult than an objective observation. When a professed atheist quotes a Bible verse after himself insulting Maia, a poster who does a much better job of following the Golden Rule, he just might be the subject of that verse. Or for a man who routinely interjects inflammatory political rhetoric into science discussions just for attention to accuse anyone else of trolling. Also, it’s a tad hypocritical to decide for yourself that a thread is dead (as if you’d been appointed moderator or something), but then respond yourself in the “dead” thread. And you really need to work on some new lines –you just keep repeating the same tired “turn out the lights, the adults have left the building…” blah, blah, blah. I know, even if we’re having trouble recycling our plastics , you’ve learned how to recycle your lines like a pro. Now I leave you to turn out those lights, as I’m sure you can show in your response what a mature adult you are. Just kidding, but at least you’ll likely say something that will earn a laugh or two at your own expense. Goodbye for now, Wilson.

          • OWilson

            Have a nice day, Mikey! :)

          • nixnoutz

            Here, in suburbia, citizens pay for recycling. But many don’t care or are too lazy to bother. And rinsing recyclables uses precious water. So petroleum plastic waste continues and pollutes our environment.

          • OWilson

            We can all agree that any kind of waste is bad but at the same time we should not forget why we are all using plastic in the first place.

            Our technological lifestyle is greatly dependent on plastics.Your computer, your smart phone, auto parts, aerospace, dental material, life saving surgical devices, aviation, your TV and appliances. demand it in huge quantities.

            It also used for solar panels, and marine applications, like studying reefs, marine biology, satellites that study the icecaps, and global temperatures, deep space telescopes, and even carries Greenpeace on their missions to save the planet!

  • nixnoutz

    Okay. Time to step up and legalize Hemp and Cannabis growing Worldwide. But keep the production organic. They’re renewable crops. Stop using petroleum for diesel and plastics. Stop using trees for paper and Palm oil. H. and C. harvesting would lessen rain and tropical forest slashing. Big Industry is against legalization but it’s in our environment’s best interest.


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