Plastic Buffet: Both China and the U.S. Have the Opportunity to Innovate on Plastic

Changes in China’s single-use plastic policy gives hope to a future where the second-life market phases out virgin plastic use.

Photo: mauriceangres

Two weeks ago marked a watershed moment for the reduction in plastic pollution in China, the world’s biggest consumer. Though the news has been overshadowed by other recent events, China’s move to reduce the use of single-use plastic is another positive vector supporting the global momentum that is building to slow retail consumption of a material which is often overused and unnecessary.

It is also a welcome contrast to the nation’s Single’s Day in November, which solidified its ranking as the world’s largest day of mass-distributed packaging waste on the planet.  With over 9.4 million tons of delivery packaging generated alone, and estimates by Greenpeace of this increasing to over 40 million tons by 2025, the event causes wide-ranging environmental stress to the communities and customers which those brands cater to.  This packaging, all of which is domestically generated, can offer large opportunities for domestic recycling and use in second-life markets (markets for recycled inputs derived from plastics, batteries and other products). This can work only if engaged, thoughtful, and systemic changes are put into place now for the reduction of wasteful materials that are not needed in the first place, and recovery of those plastics that are necessary.

China’s leadership as a recycler for much of the world’s materials was curtailed in early 2018 with a strong ban on the import of second-life materials. This sent shockwaves through regions which had failed to invest in their own domestic recycling capacities, including the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong.  Given the opportunities for innovation, job creation, and the formation of global circular economy markets, however, this could be China’s or America’s golden opportunity to create a thriving circular economy using non-virgin materials to maintain a competitive advantage in its extended use of raw materials.    

With over 40,000 variations in the way plastic products are made, it can be argued that solving plastic pollution is more complicated than bringing resolution to climate change.  This does not mean that the impacts are necessarily greater, but it means that the solutions are extremely varied, as waste is generated at the local level. Solutions must be adapted according to populations, consumption, volumes, and  dispersed aggregation (concentration and spread) of waste resources to achieve economical collection of relatively pure input material. China’s recent move to restrict single-use plastic complements its latest attempts to improve its own domestic material recovery and recycling, which for decades, had been largely overlooked.  By plugging the flow of well-sorted and cleaned material from offshore, China’s domestic sorting and recycling capacities are now stressed and underperforming without quality feedstock. Similarly the United States does not have a national policy for recycling, and lacks sufficient infrastructure for turning second-life plastic into value. 

Contrary to popular discussion in the media and environmental communities regarding the cross-border trade of plastic feedstock, however, it may not be advantageous for countries to completely shut their doors to foreign materials for recycling. Imported plastic waste has the potential to help circular economies thrive, driving leadership in second-life polymer material innovation. Consistently enforced quality control and import standards could adequately support both American and Chinese manufacturing sectors to absorb quality recycled content.

The assumption that all countries will have the infrastructure, manufacturing, and local demand for recycled content is difficult to imagine, even in the medium term. Plastics locked into a country by international or local laws banning export, prevent potential recycling inputs from becoming part of the global supply chain. When the development of strong circular economies is promoted, it only makes sense to benefit from the efficiencies realised by other industries through trade conducted in a global, cross-border manner.   

Closed borders will put increased risk on the growing attempts to halt plastic pollution on a world-wide basis. Smaller countries, in particular, would be stuck without solutions for their own inventory of plastic, particularly when their waste is often from imported products and packaging in the first place. Plastic that could have a second life as recycling feedstock, may well end up  in landfills, dumped in waterways, or openly burned.       

For countries with a competitive advantage in manufacturing, the facilitation of an efficient, scaled recycling industry will be progressively important, as large multinational brands are increasingly making significant commitments to broaden the use of recycled content in their goods and packaging. Two weeks ago NestlĂ©, for example, announced it would buy over 2 million tons of recycled plastic content for use in its packaging before 2025, at a cost of over US$1.5bn. By impeding the supply of recycled feedstock needed to satisfy growing stakeholder demands, countries could find that responsible manufacturers choose to relocate production elsewhere, selecting countries that have supply chains of recycled content.  Many products or packaging that lack the use of recycled plastic, will become products of the past. 

Finding solutions and value for second life plastic is a challenge, with volumes and large scale recycling capacities needed to compete with cheap virgin feedstock. Reincarnated plastic, however, will likely have more value than many types of virgin material in the coming years. Only a few countries will be able to create the volume of recycled content that brands are beginning to demand.  But the role of either, or both, the United States and China is vital.  

Both will need more investment in infrastructure, material recovery programmes, and efficient oversight for imported material when needed. These two giants in manufacturing and consumption are the two nations that can rise to the challenge. The opportunity is on their doorsteps – if they care to capitalise on it, leading us to a world with less plastic waste.

Co-Authors:

Douglas Woodring: Founder and Managing Director, Ocean Recovery Alliance / Plasticity Forum

Steve Wong: CEO of Fukutomi Recycling Ltd., Executive President of China Scrap Plastic Association

About Ocean Recovery Alliance: 

Ocean Recovery Alliance is an NGO based in Hong Kong and California, which focuses on solutions and innovations for reducing plastic pollution on a global scale, including work with the World Bank, UN Environment and Clinton Global Initiative.  It is the founder and organizer of the Plasticity Forum which focuses on solutions for second-life plastic, the Plastic Disclosure Project, and the Global Alert platform, each of which helps to create a world without a plastic footprint. The founder, Douglas Woodring, was awarded the 2018 Prince’s Award from Prince Albert of Monaco for his work on plastic pollution and improving the health of the ocean.  It has recently released a report on global plastic pollution commitments, with funding support from UN Environment, which offers a new scorecard and toolkit methodology for the private sector, governments and the general community to make more effective, high-impact “V2.0 Commitments” on plastic pollution.

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the author

Co-Founder of the non-profit organization Ocean Recovery Alliance and the Plasticity Forum. The group is the first to have worked with both UNEP and the World Bank on plastic pollution issues, each based around two Clinton Global Initiative programs. He has an MBA from The Wharton School, a Masters in International Economics and Relations from Johns Hopkins (SAIS), and a BA from U.C. Berkeley. He has worked in Asia for over 20 years, and is a UNEP Climate Hero. He speaks frequently at events, as well as writes articles on environmental topics. One example is this article for The Economist on the Broken Windows Theory in relation to water pollution.