For more than 25 years, many developed countries, including the US, have sent huge amounts of plastic waste to China instead of recycling them themselves.
About 106 million tonnes – about 45 percent – of the world's plastics destined for recycling have been exported to China since the 1992 United Nations Comtrade Database.
But in 2017, China has passed the National Sword Policy prohibiting the import of plastic waste – to protect the environment and human health – from January 2018.
Now that China will not take it, what happens to the leftover waste?
According to the authors of a new study, the data pile up.
"We have heard reports of waste accumulating in these locations, which depend on China," says Amy Brooks, a graduate in engineering at the University of Georgia and principal author of the study, published in Scientific Advances last week ,
She says that part of it ends up in landfills, incinerated or sent to other countries "lacking the infrastructure to properly manage it".
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The rapid expansion of disposable plastics in the 1990s – and of disposable containers – led to a rapid increase in imports. Annual global imports grew 723 percent between 1993 and 2016, to around 15 million megatons.
For developed countries like the United States, it can be more economical to drive plastics out of the country than to recycle them, says Jenna Jambeck. an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia and another of the authors of the study.
The US, Japan and Germany are at the top of the list when it comes to exporting their used plastic. In the US alone, about 26.7 million tonnes were shipped out between 1988 and 2016.
Hong Kong is the largest exporter of plastic waste with 56.1 million tons. But it served as a gateway to China – after importing 64.5 million tons of places like the US between 1988 and 2016 (which sent more than 372,000 tons in 2017) and then sending most of it to China.
Other nations can buy and recycle these plastics and produce more goods for sale or export, just as China makes it profitable for them, the study said. The industry publication "Waste Dive" reports that the US sent 137,044 tonnes to Vietnam in 2017, compared to 66,747 in 2016.
But nations like Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam are some of what China is leaving behind , have not picked so well developed waste management systems. Jambeck says that Vietnam has already reached a limit on how much garbage it can handle: The country has announced that it will no longer accept imports of plastic scrap until October.
"Not one country alone is able to take what China wants," says Jambeck. "What we need to do is to take responsibility for managing waste responsibly, wherever this waste is generated – responsibly, both ecologically and socially."
Marian Chertow, director of Yale's waste policy program, who was not involved in the study, says these new findings are useful because they confirm what the experts thought they knew – almost half of plastic waste exports recycled in China.
"There will be a tremendous shift in the market if China does not take half of these plastics, and I truly believe that this export mentality, which has developed in the US, needs to change," she says.