Is China's import ban a "Sputnik Moment" for the plastics and recycling industry?

sputnik
Public Domain Sputnik stamp ten years after

It doesn't sound like a big deal today, but some think that the implications are huge.

On 4 October, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and shocked the world. In the United States it caused dramatic changes in education and inspired a generation of engineers and scientists, leading to cascading changes in technology, engineering and science. It took a while for the impact to be realized, but everything changed that day.

TreeHugger Katherine recently wrote about how Britain is frantic now that China won't take plastic waste, but this is a much bigger deal that; Rob Watson calls January 1, 2018 a "Sputnik moment", where everything changes in the entire plastics and recycling industry.

Watson is the founder of LEED and is also founder of SWEEP, described as "LEED for solid waste". He writes that it "fundamentally changes the structure and dynamic of the global recovered paper and plastic scrap commodities market." He wrote about the ban on paper and scrap on SWEEP's website when the ban was announced:

In 2015, these two materials represented 40 percent of the total commodities volume traded globally—but less than 20 percent of the value....China imported over 10 million tons of plastic scrap in 2015, representing 67% of world demand and 29 million tons of recovered paper, just over half the global volume.

He notes that this might kill municipal recycling:

...approximately 70 percent of the US single stream volume will not be cost effective to process, which may leave municipalities the unenviable Hobson’s choice of whether to continue losing huge amounts of money on recycling or doing away with it altogether.

blue sputnik stampSputnik stamp/Public Domain

Garbage expert Adam Minter thought this ban was a terrible idea, suggesting that was really mostly packaging of Chinese products coming home. He writes in Bloomberg:

That's a good thing for everyone involved. Americans are good recyclers, but they're even better consumers, and on average roughly one-third of the stuff that's tossed into U.S. recycling bins can't be made into new products domestically, because there's too much of it. Before China's market opened, that meant that lots of otherwise recyclable waste had nowhere to go.

glory to soviet scienceglory to soviet science/Public Domain

But a thorough article in the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based English language paper, gives a different spin on the story. Tom Baxter and Liu Hua of Greenpeace East Asia don't bury the lede in their first paragraph:

Though the regulation is primarily designed to address major environmental and health issues in China, it will also be a genuine global disrupter. It has the potential to propel many waste-exporting countries – who for far too long have taken an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to waste disposal – to adopt far more progressive disposal and recycling systems.

They explain how the importing of waste used to be a valuable source of material, but over time has become a source of environmental and health problems. But banning the import of foreign waste could help clean up China's internal waste problems.

The whole sector will become hungrier for domestic waste supplies, which could act as a major stimulus for China’s own waste management and recycling. The onus will now be on governments across the country to introduce more comprehensive and more effective waste classification measures, to ensure more gets recycled, and less gets dumped in rapidly expanding landfill sites.

They also note that this will force the rest of the world to do something about their own waste.

The world cannot continue with the current wasteful consumption model based on infinite growth in a finite world. The new era is not just about effective recycling, it is also about tackling our waste problem at source, by drastically reducing the production of billions of plastic goods every year...It’s time to wave goodbye to the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude towards waste, and usher in an era of reduced waste. Governments across the world will soon realise they have little choice but to welcome this new era, for the good of our and our planet’s health.

UPDATE: Adam Minter notes that the situation isn't as wonderful as the SCMP article suggests, emphasis mine:

...it's naive to think that shutting down the imports will suddenly spur China's domestic recycling industry. Instead, it's spurring the import of more virgin materials. For example, thanks to the new restriction, China's papermakers are expected to import 5 million mt of wood pulp in 2018 to make up for the loss of recycled pulp. And US plastic makers are now projecting increases of around 19% in exports to China, to make up for the fall off in recycled supplies. That's bad for the global environment - not just China's.

Folks need to get over this notion that recycling is an unabashed good. It requires energy, generates waste, and is a threat to human safety, even in the best plants. But as someone who has visited some of the worst recycling sites in the world, including in China, I can say without reservation that the worst recycling is still better than the best open pit mine, forest clear cut, or oil field. Alas, that kind of nuanced view of the recycling industry has long been missing from media commentary and coverage of it.

sputnik stampSputnik stamp/Public Domain

Back in the USA, Rob Watson comes to a similar conclusion.

In the US, we need a “space race”-like program to create a Waste-Free America Initiative that rebuilds our 1970s recycling industry into a 21st century closed loop structure.

It took a while for the impact of Sputnik to sink in. But it led directly to the founding of DARPA, who invented the Internet, not to mention every other benefit we get from all those satellites talking to our smart phones. One can only hope that this is indeed a Sputnik moment for plastic. There is nowhere to put it, so we have to either stop making it or have to figure out what to do with it. Either way, we are in for big changes.

Related Content on Treehugger.com