Photograph by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said, Getty
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A man looks for plastic to recycle at a garbage site in Malaysia.
Photograph by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said, Getty

China's ban on trash imports shifts waste crisis to Southeast Asia

As plastic scrap piles up, Malaysia and others fight back.

This story is part of Planet or Plastic? and is produced in partnership with National Geographic Society.

When President Donald Trump signed legislation renewing the federal marine debris program, he blamed Asia for fouling the world’s oceans. He named Japan, China, and “many, many countries” for dumping plastic waste that floats over to the West Coast.

“And we’re charged with removing it, which is a very unfair situation,” he said.

What Trump didn’t acknowledge is that plastic waste polluting the seas cannot be assigned entirely to Asia alone. East and West are inextricably connected by their plastic trash, as wealthy nations sell their recycled plastic scrap to Asia for the simple fact it’s easier to ship it around the world than process it at home.

That convenience was cast in a new light last January, when China, the biggest importer, stopped buying most recycled waste. After 25 years as the world’s salvage king, China refused to buy any recycled plastic scrap that wasn’t 99.5 percent pure–a move that upended a $200 billion global recycling industry with profound consequences on both sides of the world. (Read more about that here.)

Bales of trash piled up in California, in the U.K., in Australia, and elsewhere, as exporting nations scoured the world for new buyers. Across Southeast Asia, recyclers operating in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia bought, but were quickly overwhelmed by, the sheer volume that China once easily absorbed.

By the time Trump called out Asia “as abusers” for “making our oceans their landfills,” Malaysia was drowning in plastic scrap. Malaysia’s environment minister did not miss the irony in the president’s remarks.

“I hate seeing my country as the dumpsite for the developed world,” said Yeo Bee Yin, whose full title is Minister for Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change, and Environment. She declared that “no developing nation should be the dumping site for the developed world.”

And in an interview with National Geographic, she added a scold to the United States: “You have to mind your waste in your own backyard. Especially the non-recyclables.”

Mounting trash heap

The accumulation of plastic in the oceans has worsened as two trends reveal a bleak picture of the future of waste. The planet’s growing heap of trash in general is forecast by the World Bank to grow by 70 percent in 30 years. And, the astonishing growth of plastics production–half of the 7,800 million tons ever produced has been made since 2004, with 40 percent of it disposable–is outpacing almost all other manufactured materials as well as the ability of developing nations to deal with it. In other words, garbage is only going to get worse.

At his White House bill-signing ceremony, Trump did make a relevant point about Asia’s own trash. In 2015, when the first global measurement of plastic waste revealed an average of 8.5 million tons flow offshore every year, China topped the list of 192 coastal countries as the largest polluter of plastics. Among the next 19 countries on a Top 20 list, 11 are in Asia.

Among rivers that carry the most plastics out to sea, compiled for a 2017 study published in Nature, 15 of the top 20 are in Asia. Six are in China. Asia has serious problems with plastic pollution. But shipping waste to Asia only makes it worse.

Imported plastic waste adds, on average, another 12 percent to the plastic waste China generates domestically every year, according to a study published in Science Advances last June. In 2016, that translated into 8.1 million additional tons on top of the 67 million tons of domestic trash created in China.

Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit based in Washington and Geneva, says China’s closing the door to trash “exposes the myth that the United States is capable of dealing with its own plastics problem.”

“The way we have been dealing with our waste problem is to export it,” he says. “It makes our plastic problems invisible by shifting them. It also demonstrates that it is not simply an Asian problem.”

How the recycling mess emerged

If the aluminum can is the world’s most perfect recyclable container, plastic is the opposite. Aluminum can be recycled innumerable times to make new aluminum cans. Plastic can be recycled only a limited number of times, and is difficult to recycle. Each variety of plastic requires a different recycling process, and plastics are made from thousands of different formulas.

Even the seven most common types of plastic used in consumer manufacturing–stamped on the bottom with a number inside a triangle–are replete with inconsistent resin composition, color, transparency, weight, shape, and size that complicate and often rule out recycling. For example, a #1 soda bottle has different melt properties than a #1 lettuce container, making the lettuce container a contaminant for the soda bottle. Colored soda bottles cannot mix with clear soda bottles. Yogurt containers cannot mix with milk jugs, even though both are white. Filmy cling wrap can be recycled in theory, but is too often contaminated by food. The limitations are too many to count.

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Recology’s largest San Francisco recycling plant handles 500 to 600 tons daily. One of the few plants in the U.S. that accept shopping bags, it has more than doubled the tonnage it recycles in the past 20 years. The conveyor belt is carrying mixed plastic to an optical sorter.

Sorting all that out is a huge chore. “That’s where the economics go haywire,” says Douglas Woodring, founder of the Hong Kong-based Ocean Recovery Alliance.

Wealthy nations can’t even think about hand-sorting certain plastics, even though it is sometimes the only effective way to maintain purity as plastic is reprocessed. It’s long been more economical for American recyclers to bale plastic scrap and ship to Asia, where labor is cheap and environmental standards present a lower hurdle to mount.

“I never thought plastic recycling would work,” says Roland Geyer, an engineering professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of the study “Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made.” “There is a viable business model around metal, but plastics never has had that. It’s too low-value, too contaminated, with too many different polymers mixed together. And you can only make it work with a really low cost of labor.”

For a time, China, as the center of the global recycling trade, made it work. As it became the world’s leading manufacturer of cheap clothing and other synthetic goods, its appetite for plastic feed stock grew. After shipping goods to the West Coast, China had empty ships to fill on the return trip and offered rock-bottom shipping prices to West Coast recycling companies to sell their plastic trash. The United States quickly became one of China’s largest customers.

By 2016, half the world’s plastic scrap intended for recycling was traded internationally. China has imported 45 percent of the world’s total waste since 1992. (When Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after 156 years as a British colony, is added in, China’s share becomes 70 percent.)

Today, Recology, San Francisco’s employee-owned recycling company, pays $300-to-$500 to ship a container of recycled plastic across the Pacific–a fraction of the $3,500-to-$4,000 price tag for transporting that same container across the United States to plastic processing plants that are mostly located in the South, according to Robert Reed, a company spokesman.

“A high level of uncertainty exists in the recycling markets today,” Reed says. “No one has a crystal ball to see or predict what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year.”

Steve Wong, chairman of a recycling firm in Hong Hong and a one-time big player in the Chinese recycling market, estimates that China’s waste purchases this year amount to just one percent of the eight million tons it once bought every year.

In the meanwhile, the U.S. is among the countries on the hunt for other Asian buyers, as Asia remains its primary destination for its exported trash. Between January and June of this year, 81 percent of American trash exports were shipped to Asia, according to an analysis by Greenpeace Unearthed, an investigative journalism project in the U.K. funded by Greenpeace. To cite one example, American recyclers sold 101 tons of plastic waste in Thailand in the first six months of this year–a 1,985 percent increase over the 4,409 tons sold during the same period in 2017. Sales of trash to Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, and South Korea also showed sharp increases by June of this year.

Malaysia becomes ground zero

With China’s door to plastic waste effectively closed, hundreds of small-operation Chinese plastics recyclers relocated to other Southeast Asian countries. They set up new factories, often illegally. They began buying imported plastic trash for reprocessing. In the first half of the year, imports of plastic trash increased by 56 percent in Indonesia, doubled in Vietnam, and rose in Thailand by 1,370 percent, according to an analysis of trade data by the Financial Times.

In Malaysia, Yeo watched in dismay as plastic waste made a massive detour across Southeast Asia, and overnight turned Malaysia into the world’s largest importer of plastic trash. Between January and June, Malaysia received hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic scrap–215,000 from the United States,115,000 tons from Japan, 95,000 from the U.K., and 37,000 from Australia, according to figures provided to National Geographic by Yeo’s office.

As Chinese recyclers relocated, their goal, described in Plastics Today, an industry newsletter, was to melt plastic scrap into pellets to sell to China, betting that the pellets cleaned up enough in the process to get past Chinese customs inspection. At China’s border stations, however, things have not gone quite that smoothly. Inspectors have not only been on the lookout for contamination, but also for smuggled low-grade plastic waste hidden in pellet containers. As of June, China had begun 134 criminal investigations involving 254,000 tons of smuggled trash.

Manta Ray Swims in Trash-Filled Ocean

Meanwhile, as the renegade plants began melting scrap, their new hosts moved to shut them down. Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Indonesia imposed a slate of restrictions on imported non-recyclable plastic, including bans, inspections, freezes on new licenses, new taxes and fees, and raids on illegal operations.

In Malaysia, Yeo and two other ministers also shut down 30 factories that had been importing plastic waste illegally. Yeo says the government is taking steps to permanently ban non-recyclable plastics and allow imports of only high-value recycled plastic.

“At the height of my anger, I wanted to send it back to the country of origin,” she says. “What I realized is there is no tracking. There is a gap between what the citizens know about their waste and what actually happens to their waste. The United States is the biggest exporter of plastic waste to Malaysia. I believe Americans must know what happened and take shared responsibility as global citizens.”

A green future?

Yeo has been on the job only a few months. She was appointed after national elections in May changed the ruling party for the first time in 61 years. Watching what she describes as the “mushrooming of illegal factories” in her country inspired her to push for more comprehensive reforms and turn Malaysia greener, with zero single-use plastics, by 2030.

The government is phasing out plastic shopping bags, starting with charging a fee on them. For a country of 32 million people, where the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturing Association estimates citizens use, on average, 300 plastic shopping bags a year, that’s called a good start. Tesco Malaysia, a division of the U.K.’s supermarket chain, announced it would give discounts to customers who reuse shopping bags. Yeo also announced a ban on straws dispensed at restaurants in Malaysia’s federal territories that takes effect in 2020.

“What we are envisioning is not only reducing our plastics usage, but transforming the plastics industry in Malaysia,” Yeo says. “Is there something we can do to provide a solution to the world?”

If it seems unusual for the new government to be focused so ambitiously on plastic waste while facing other major challenges, including cleaning up a world-class financial scandal that drove the former government from power, Yeo says China’s ban forced Malaysia’s hand.

“It was a good wake-up call,” she says. “What the China ban told the world is that we must rethink plastic use globally and we of this generation must solve the problem. By 2050, our world will have more than 10 billion people. Can you imagine how much plastics will have accumulated by then?”

National Geographic is committed to reducing plastics pollution. Learn more about our non-profit activities at natgeo.org/plastics. This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.