The Plastic Hot Potato

Until the end of 2017, much of the developed world shipped its plastic recycling (aka garbage) to China. At the end of 2017, China banned this practice and quickly went from importing 60% of the G7's plastic waste to under 10%.

The Developed World is Exporting its Plastics Problem

China - and other developing nations - has been blamed for the plastic floating around in the oceans. However, a big portion of that floating garbage has origins in the developed world. Like it has for many other horrors of industrial production, the developed world outsourced its garbage problems to countries with cheap labor and weak environmental laws. Indeed, plastics recycling might not be viable at all if it weren't for empty container ships returning to China after delivering Chinese goods to the developed world and cheap Chinese labor to sort plastics.

The charts below compare G7 plastic exports during the first 6 months of 2017 and 2018. The comparison makes two things clear: 1) China and Hong Kong were once saving the G7 by readily accepting its plastic, and 2) with China now shutting down imports of plastic garbage, it is unclear how the developed world will manage its growing plastics crisis.

The Plastics Crisis Will Only Worsen

According to National Geographic:
The planet’s growing heap of rubbish 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.
The G7 has received a free-ish pass until now. Which country will be willing to accept the plastic hot potato going forward? Which country will bear the cost and responsibility of the exploding global plastics disaster?



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