How China’s plastic waste ban forced a global recycling reckoning

The country once imported nearly half of the planet’s plastic recyclables. Now the world is scrambling to adjust.

This story appears in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

After importing nearly half of the planet’s plastic recyclables for three decades, China barred the import of most residential recyclables in 2017. The ban is part of its efforts to clean its environment and improve quality of life. Now other countries in Asia are increasing their plastic waste imports, raising environmental concerns about their ability to handle such large volumes of recyclables. Meanwhile, in developed countries many domestic recycling programs have been halted because of the cost.

GLOBAL WASTE PLASTIC EXPORTS TO ALL NATIONS

January 2017—September 2018*

GLOBAL WASTE PLASTIC EXPORTS TO CHINA

January 2017

February 2017

581,000 metric tons

100,000

METRIC TONS

TOP 10, 2017

Japan

U.S.

Germany

April

Thailand

Indonesia

U.K.

May

South Korea

Belgium

Mexico

June

Hong Kong

81 other countries

exported plastic waste

to China

in 2017

July 2017

In July 2017 China

began stringently

enforcing

environmental

laws, leading to an

immediate decline

in imported plastic

even before the

ban started.

October

November

December

January 2018

The crackdown on

plastic waste from

residential collec

tions began in

2018. The trickle

that remained was

from industrial

imports.

February 2018

23,900 metric tons

April

May

September 2018

The number of

countries export

ing plastic waste to

China fell from 90

in 2017 to just over

40 by September

2018. Thailand and

Malaysia saw an

uptick in imports

after the ban.

GLOBAL WASTE PLASTIC

EXPORTS TO ALL NATIONS

Millions of metric tons

1990–2017

15

10

One reason for the drop in 2017: fewer markets for plastic waste

5

1990

‘95

2000

‘05

‘10

‘15

‘17

 *LATEST AVAILABLE DATA. Indonesia’s 2018 export data were not available.

 

sourceS: UN comtrade; Thai Customs Department; Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department; Korea Customs Service; Eurostat; Adina R. Adler, insTitute of scrap recycling industries; Amy Brooks, Jenna Jambeck, Shunli Wang, University of Georgia

GLOBAL WASTE PLASTIC EXPORTS TO ALL NATIONS

January 2017—September 2018*

January

2017

GLOBAL

WASTE PLASTIC

EXPORTS TO CHINA

In July 2017 China

began stringently

enforcing environ

mental laws, leading

to an immediate

decline in imported

plastic even before

the ban started.

July

2017

TOP 10, 2017

The crackdown on

plastic waste from

residential collec

tions began in 2018.

The trickle that

remained was from

industrial imports.

Japan

U.S.

Germany

January

2018

February 2018

23,900

metric tons

September

2018

Thailand

Indonesia

U.K.

South Korea

Belgium

Mexico

The number of

countries exporting plastic

waste to China fell from 90 in

2017 to just over 40 by Sep

tember 2018. Thailand and

Malaysia saw an uptick in

imports after the ban.

Hong Kong

February 2017

581,000

metric tons

81 other countries

exported plastic waste

to China in 2017

100,000

METRIC TONS

15

GLOBAL WASTE PLASTIC

EXPORTS TO ALL NATIONS

Millions of metric tons

1990–2017

10

One reason for the drop in 2017: fewer markets for plastic waste

5

 *LATEST AVAILABLE DATA. Indonesia’s 2018 export data were not available.

 

sourceS: UN comtrade; Thai Customs Department; Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department; Korea Customs Service; Eurostat; Adina R. Adler, insTitute of scrap recycling industries; Amy Brooks, Jenna Jambeck, Shunli Wang, University of Georgia

1990

‘95

2000

‘05

‘10

‘15

‘17

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.