The Plastic Waste Dilemma: Impact of China’s National Sword Policy on the World and How Nations are Responding
By Ana Yong
- The Effects of Microplastics on Humans: An Introduction
- Where are Microplastics Found and Where do They Come From?
Plastic was invented in 1907 by a Belgian chemist named Leo Baekeland who named his invention ‘Bakelite’. It was a combination of Formaldehyde and Phenol which triggered an economic boom because more merchandise could be made available to the masses.
And because of the extensive use of plastics, including the process of protecting and transporting products and goods, almost everyone can have access to consumer products no matter where they are. Thus, a never-ending accumulation of used plastics has begun. With no place to go after they have served their purpose, these plastic bits and pieces are disposed of by being discarded in landfills, illegal dump sites, incinerated or shipped off to other countries. Only a small proportion is recycled.
Caltech Science Exchange’s article entitled “How Can We Reduce Plastic Pollution?” (undated) declared that the United States produced 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018 where 27 million tons went to landfills, 5.6 million tons were burnt, and only 3 million tons were recycled.
World Wildlife Fund, Inc. Australia published an article on their website called “Plastic waste and climate change – what’s the connection?” dated 30 June 2021 which explained that most plastic is produced from materials like Ethylene and Propylene which come from fossil fuels (oil and gas). Therefore, extracting and transporting the fossil fuels in addition to making plastic generate an unimaginable amount of greenhouse gases.
Another article by Plastics Europe called “How plastics are made” (undated) indicated that natural and organic ingredients like cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil are used to manufacture plastics. And since crude oil is a combination of numerous compounds, the process starts with the distillation of crude oil in an oil refinery in order to obtain a vital compound called Naphtha which is crucial in the production of plastics. All the processes used to extract Naphtha require a lot of energy and this adds to climate change.
Using current technology, plastics can be made with synthetic or biobased raw materials. Synthetic materials are those mentioned above that include crude oil while biobased constituents are starch, carbohydrates, bacteria and animal waste products. As oil is not an infinite item, a shift in using biobased substances to generate plastics should be considered.
An article by European Bioplastics called “Do bioplastics have a lower carbon footprint than fossil based plastics? How is this measured?” (2 March 2016) claimed that since biomass components are not derived from petroleum-based raw materials, greenhouse gas releases are minimized. As plants grow, they trap Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and when these plants are used to produce plastics, the CO2 is trapped for life. “Substituting the annual global demand for fossil-based polyethylene (PE) with bio-based PE would save more than 42 million tons of CO2. This equals the CO2 emissions of 10 million flights around the world per year”.
In fact, not only plastic production affects climate change but the whole plastic lifecycle has a hand as well. This is shown by a simple and easy to understand infographic dated 9 November 2021 on the World Bank blog page.
Here are the 6 stages of the plastic life span that contribute to the worsening of global climate change:
- Extraction of Raw Materials
This starts with the extraction of crude oil from oil rigs where the international oil consumption (as used in the plastics industry) makes up 6% but is predicted to reach 20% by 2050. Furthermore, the energy demanding extraction and distillation processes emit gigantic quantities of greenhouse gases.
- Consumption of Plastic Items
After the plastic products have been utilized and thrown away, only 9% are recycled worldwide while the balance is thrown into ecosystems. As the region that generates the highest proportion of plastic waste (more than 26 million tons daily), South Asia has the greatest share of waste that is explicitly dumped.
Note: According to britannica.com, South Asia is a “subregion of Asia, consisting of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and peninsular India. It includes the countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka; Afghanistan and the Maldives are often considered part of South Asia as well”.
- End of life
When exposed to the elements, plastic debris that has not been properly managed generates greenhouse emissions like methane and ethylene into the atmosphere.
- Recycling and Closing the Loop
At the time of writing, only 5% of waste generated in South Asia is recycled. Therefore, more needs to be done.
- Marine Litter
It is reported that one garbage truck size of plastic garbage is emptied into the ocean every minute, facilitating direct CO2 emissions and impacting marine organisms negatively. Healthy plankton sequesters 30%-50% of CO2 emissions but its ability to do so is hampered after it consumes microplastics.
- Open Burning
This is practiced widely in South Asia with a combined amount of 8.4% of waste burned by India and Nepal worldwide. Such burning produces ‘Black Carbon’ which creates a thick and visible smog over large areas. It is more potent than CO2 because its global warming potential is up to 5,000 times more.
As one of the most universally used plastics, it is applied in food packaging, food storage and fabrics (polyester) as it is lightweight, durable, and normally transparent. Examples include mineral water bottles, food bottles or jars (eg. jam jars), and polyester clothing or rope.
There are 3 types of PE-HD 02 plastics: (a) High-Density, (b) Low-Density and (c) Linear Low-Density. Overall, such plastics are sturdy and impervious to moisture and chemicals, therefore, it is used to make cartons, containers, pipes and other construction supplies. Examples consist of milk cartons, detergent bottles, lining for cereal boxes, toys, buckets, park benches and inelastic pipes.
PVC 03 plastics are tough and resistive to chemicals, and wear and tear when exposed to the elements. Therefore, they are widely used as building and construction materials. In addition to the fact that they do not conduct electricity, they are ideal to be used in wires and cables. Being impervious to germs, they are found in healthcare products but they are also known to leach poisons and are threatening to human health. Examples include credit cards, IV fluid bags and oxygen masks.
This is s weaker, more transparent and malleable version of HDPE which is used to line the insides of drink cartons and anti-corrosion work surfaces and other items. Examples are cling wraps, garbage bags and beverage cups.
PP 05 plastics are more heavy-duty and long-lasting. As it is a lot more heat tolerant, it is used for food packaging and storage, especially in disposable items used to contain hot food or for heating up food. It is malleable enough for slight bending while still keeping its structure and strength. Examples include straws, bottle caps, hot food containers, and disposable diapers.
This low-cost insulating plastic material is commonly referred to as Styrofoam and is used widely in the food, packaging and construction industries. Like PVC 03, it is dangerous to human health as it can leach Styrene (a neurotoxin) that can be absorbed by food which is then consumed by humans. Examples are cups, takeaway food containers, shipping and product wrapping, egg cartons, cutlery and construction insulation.
Neurotoxins are “synthetic or naturally occurring substances that damage, destroy, or impair the functioning of the central and/or peripheral nervous system”.
This class is a catch phrase for all other types of plastics that are not in the top 6 or are amalgamations of various types. Sadly, this class of plastics is not recyclable. Instances include eyeglasses, baby and sports bottles, electronics, compact discs (CDs), digital versatile discs (DVDs), lighting fixtures and clear plastic cutlery.
As plastics have evolved to become a major health hazard to humans and the environment, let’s take a look at a major policy that has affected how global plastic waste is managed – China’s National Sword Policy.
Insights on China’s National Sword Policy
Before the National Sword Policy came into existence, its predecessor, known as ‘Operation Green Fence’, was implemented in February 2013. Almost 70% of all imported plastic waste was subjected to intense scrutiny and verification in the first year of implementation. Establishments found to be shipping unauthorized materials were liable to have their licenses cancelled. In addition, recyclers may also have to bear the burden of returning containers full of unapproved plastic debris. Nonetheless, almost 22,000 containers (about 0.04%) were certified unfit for import.
The National Sword Policy came into effect on 1 January 2018 encompassing a 24-item list banning, amongst other materials, 8 kinds of post-consumer plastic waste, 1 category of unsorted paper, 12 varieties of secondhand textiles, and 4 metal slags with vanadium.
Note: a slag is “more or less completely fused and vitrified matter separated during the reduction of a metal from its ore”. Vanadium is “a hard, silver-grey metallic element. It is a ductile transition metal with a natural resistance to corrosion and stability against alkalis, acids and salt water”.
In spite of this, two months later, another ban was imposed on a quantity of scrap material imports which reduced the import of solid waste by half and almost stopped plastic debris imports in 2018. Towards the end of 2019, an additional 16 materials were appended to the list. In the following year, solid waste imports were prohibited which included dumping, piling and discarding imported garbage. Hence, from 1 January 2021, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment ceased the issue of import licenses from abroad in order to manage pollution and set the direction for local industries to develop their waste processing systems.
During the same period, a five-year engagement scheme was implemented to replace the production and distribution of single-use plastics with eco-alternatives and recycling. At that point in time, plastic shopping bags and disposable plastics used in restaurants were the main focus of these policies.
In 1980, 100% of plastic waste was discarded. Incineration rates from 1980 and recycling rates from 1990 increased by around 0.7% annually leading to 55% of plastic debris being thrown away, 25.5% burnt, and 19.5% recycled in 2015.
Source: New Zealand Ministry for the Environment An article by New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment called “Phasing out hard-to-recycle and single-use plastics” updated 12 December 2022 announced the gradual removal of ‘hard to recycle’ plastics and 6 single-use products which comprises (but not limited to) PVC food trays and containers and plastic drink stirrers. The policy will be executed in 3 stages. To find out which plastic products are phased out or banned from mid-2025, click here.
The government has suggested some alternatives that include reusable items (like metal utensils), non-plastic products, and easier to recycle plastics (like Types 1, 2 and 5: see infographic below).
Source: New Zealand Ministry for the Environment
New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (NSW EPA)’s article entitled “Response to the enforcement of the China National Sword Policy” updated 28 November 2018 listed a collection of short, medium and long-term resolutions for the recycling industry including charity groups and environmental agencies.
A budget of AUD 47 million, under the ‘Waste Less, Recycle More’ Initiative, was set aside to support local industries. The money will be used to:
- Alleviate council expenditure for kerbside recycling collections,
- Develop council tendering procedures to boost the manufacture and utilization of recycled items, and
- Sponsor educational events to minimize kerbside recycling contamination.
An article by the University of Buffalo News Center called “UB research study reports the impact of China’s National Sword policy on the U.S. landfill and plastics recycling industry” dated 29 March 2022 stated that plastic trash landfilled in the U.S. rose by 23.2% after China’s National Sword Policy was put into practice. This result was among others derived from a study conducted by the university and is published in MDPI Journals (peer-reviewed). Click here for the full academic paper.
In order to study the impact, researchers interviewed operators working at certified material recovery facilities (MRFs) in New York and studied data from annual reports submitted to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The project was carried after DEC awarded USD 1.9 million to the University of Buffalo’s RENEW Institute in 2020.
The project team found that since the U.S. was not able to ship their plastic waste to China and record it as recycled, recycling in the U.S. had dropped intensely while the amount landfilled had amplified. Therefore, there is a need to relook and improve domestic recycling capabilities, chargeable fees and ways to reduce contamination in the recycling process.
Certain communities and municipalities across the U.S. are reducing the amount of plastic waste collected or have stopped collections completely while trying to find new markets that would accept such imports. At the same time, some collection agencies are burning the trash in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants.
Canada implemented the ‘Zero Plastic Waste Agenda’ in November 2018 (updated 31 October 2022) which focuses on a circular economy and lifestyle methodology for plastic use. The plan is divided into 2 phases to define actionable programs and deadlines to circumvent, minimize, reuse, recover, and sanitize plastic waste and pollution.
In addition, Canada adopted the ‘Greening Government Strategy’ to promote the utilization and removal of plastics within the federal government with emphasis on removing single-use plastics in government processes, assemblies and proceedings, and obtaining more reusable plastic products. The objective is to extend the use of these items and remove, at best, 75% of plastic waste from federal campaigns by 2030.
An article by The Conversation entitled “As more developing countries reject plastic waste exports, wealthy nations seek solutions at home” dated 5 June 2019 highlighted that these countries have started accepting plastic waste shipped from the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. However, as the debris was contaminated, Malaysia had to return 3,000 metric tons of garbage while the Philippines sent back 2,400 tons. In addition, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are stopping all plastic waste imports and international support was given in Geneva in May 2019 where more than 180 nations decided to reduce significantly the amount of plastic trash traded worldwide.
China’s National Sword Policy, although administered to protect domestic interests, has inevitably necessitated an innovation in current recycling methodologies worldwide. An academic paper entitled “A Recycling Reckoning: How Operation National Sword catalyzed a transition in the U.S. plastics recycling system” published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, volume 378 suggested the advent of ‘multiple niche-innovations’ which can maintain a more sustainable recycling industry. To obtain the full paper, click here.
An offshoot of the above would be that exporting nations would focus on finding unconventional avenues to handle domestic plastic debris by investing in commercial projects to improve recycling and sorting processes.
Indirectly, local investments lead to more jobs being created and ultimately, a better standard of living and less inequality.
HDPE plastic polymer is one of the easiest to recycle and is accepted at many recycling facilities worldwide. It has a recycling rate of about 30% in the United States. HDPE is usually downcycled into lower value items like tables and plastic lumber.
However, the most widely recycled plastic is PET with India, Europe and South Korea recycling more than 50% of PET items. Internationally, most PET debris is converted into fashion items including polar fleece clothing by converting PET into flakes which are then spun into yarn to manufacture textiles.
For those countries willing to accept plastic waste imports, it is a source of income leading to a growth in Gross Domestic Product per Capita (GDP per capita) which is “the sum of gross value added by all resident producers in the economy plus any product taxes (less subsidies) not included in the valuation of output, divided by mid-year population”.
Although some countries have replaced China in the role of accepting plastic debris imports, certain nations like Malaysia has returned tons of unrecyclable plastics to exporting nations. Some experts wonder if this is the start of rising environmentalism in financially weaker economies that also want to protect their ecology.
China has become a formidable player in the realm of international trade since it opened up its economy in 1978. There is no doubt that any policy created to safeguard its domestic market would have wide implications on the world at large. Every nation can only do the best they can, given the existing circumstances and requirements.