How China’s ban of plastic waste imports can help us beat pollution

When China decided to ban imports of plastic waste at the end of last year, it left major exporters of plastic waste unprepared. According to the Worldwatch Institute, the average North American or European consumes 100 kilograms of plastic every year. Globally, only 14 per cent of our plastic waste is being recycled. Current recycling machines are unable to separate plastics into reusable forms, so plastic waste has previously been pressed into bales and sent to China, where recyclable plastic was manually picked and reused.

The imports of plastic waste have had disastrous impacts on the environment and people’s health in China. Batches were often contaminated with hazardous materials, such as medical trash, endangering workers in the recycling facilities.

Approximately 8 million tons of waste, the amount China imported in 2016, now needs to be processed somewhere else. This could mean shifting the waste to neighbouring countries, but less developed treatment industries give rise to a growing informal recycling sector and its related environmental and social damages. For now, the United Kingdom and the United States have turned to landfilling and incineration to rid themselves of their growing piles of plastic waste, meaning that resources are not only being wasted, but are also polluting air and land.

China’s policy decision should not mean that the “problem” of plastic waste is relocated to other countries or buried on landfill sites. Instead, this moment should be seen as a trigger-point to develop sustainable plastic waste management practices and boost recycling rates in waste exporting countries.

Green industrial policies allow governments to leverage this opportunity to cut off plastic waste where it starts. Plastic waste regulations show how green industrial policy can directly impact our daily lives. But it is only one piece in a set of different policies that can help transform our economies into drivers of sustainability. While research into the field of green industrial policy is still relatively limited, UN Environment and the Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE) are at the forefront of delivering the data, the theoretical information and concrete advice to policymakers, enabling them to pilot this transformation in their countries.

On 22 February, PAGE is hosting an event on green industrial policy for transformative change, discussing the links between theory and practice. The event will launch the trilogy of PAGE publications on green industrial policy: “Practitioner’s Guide to Strategic Green Industrial Policy”, “Green Industrial Policy: Concept, Policies, Country Experiences” and “Green Industrial Policy & Trade: A Tool-Box”.


Verena Balke
Verena Balke
UN Environment’s Resources and Markets Branch