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Plastic pollution

What happens to our plastic waste?

Professor Gang Liu has tracked the global trade in plastic after China in 2018 stopped importing plastic. The researcher is in no doubt that some of our collected plastic still ends up in Asia, and no doubt that some of our collected plastic ends as an environmental problem in Asia.

By Birgitte Dalgaard, , 5/1/2019

After images of the Yangtze River filled with plastic came to the world's attention, in 2018 China introduced a ban on the import of several types of waste, including plastic.

China was the world's largest importer of the West's worn-out plastic, and China's longest river, the Yangtze River, was responsible for depositing 1.5 million tons of plastic waste into the world's oceans.

- The waste ban caused panic in the West. What would we do with the growing amount of plastic waste? says Professor Gang Liu from SDU Life Cycle Engineering, who is originally from China.

Massive environmental problems

-At the same time, plastic had become a huge industry in China. Many small business owners used the plastic waste to make cheap products. But China had to take action due to the massive environmental problems that were clear to see in the rivers, says Gang Liu.

In 2016, China imported over 7 million tons of plastic, in particular from Europe and the USA. That came to an abrupt end with the Chinese ban.

Gang Liu researches in circular economy and is interested in how waste streams flow all over the world, and along with other researchers he has looked at the consequences of China suddenly closing the lid on the West's largest waste bin for plastic.

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The end to the Chinese importation of plastic waste has not had a great impact on Danish plastic waste. Denmark exported only about 3,000 tons of plastic waste to China in 2017. On the other hand, like other western countries, Denmark exports a lot of our plastic. The amount varies year by year, but can go as high as  about 50 percent of its plastic waste. 

- Waste is big business and is traded between countries all over the world. In 2017, Denmark exported 48,251 tons of plastic waste. 58 percent of the plastic ended up in Germany, which exports large quantities of plastic to Asia. Here our insight into what is happening with the Danish plastic stops, but some certainly end up in Asia, says Gang Liu, who lacks knowledge about how the exported Danish plastic is managed.

Plastic now ends up in Malaysia

Greenpeace has recently called Malaysia the new dumping site for plastic.

In the report "The recycling myth: Malaysia and the broken global recycling system", Greenpeace indicates that between January and July 2018, Malaysia imported 754,000 tons of plastic.

Germany sent the fourth largest amount of plastic to Malaysia: namely, 75,501 tons.

But now there is a tendency to say no to waste from the West. Malaysia has sent five containers full of plastic waste back to Spain and will soon send up to 3,000 tons of waste back to the UK, the United States, Japan, China, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Norway and France.


The West is selling its environmental problems

There are many different actors and different numbers in the field of waste, but according to the waste statistics from the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, Danish households and businesses produced 110.000 tons of plastic waste in 2016. To prevent the plastic to end up in nature and in incineration facilities, the Government launched its Plastic Action Plan in December 2018.

In one of the plan's initiatives, the Government will force municipalities to collect plastic waste from all residents in all municipalities.

- It's great that we're using many of our resources to collect and separate plastic, but it's pointless if it's just sent to Germany and then on to Malaysia, ending up mixed or mismanaged. Ironically, that's what happens now with some of our collected plastic waste - no one knows how much, and that's a wasted effort, points out Gang Liu.

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The impact of China's waste ban can be lessened in the short term as alternative waste heavens pop up in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and India, who do not have stringent environmental regulations.

But Gang Liu points out that in the long term international environmental requirements should be established and all countries need to contribute to responsible recycling industries for a true circular economy both globally and nationally.

Global standards

- But for that to happen, we in the West need to make a stand on the treatment of our plastic.

-So that's why we researchers are seeking global standards and assessments of countries' systems for waste treatment, an international system that monitors and ensures that the standards are being adhered to. Today it's possible to freely transfer countries' environmental burdens through trade.

With the ambition to reduce plastic waste produced by Danish households and businesses and increase the share of recycling Gang Liu points to the Porter hypothesis, which states that environmental regulations over time have often been an advantage to the companies which are regulated.

Political initiatives about plastic:

EU: A large majority in the European Parliament voted yes to a proposal from the Commission to ban the use of single-use cutlery, drinking straws, cotton buds and balloon sticks made of plastic. The ban is expected to be implemented from 2021.

New targets in the EU oblige member countries to be recycling 50% and 55% of all plastic packaging by 2025 and 2030 respectively. Following the new method of assessment, it is estimated that today Denmark recycles approximately 18% of plastic packaging. (Source: The Government's Plastic Action Plan)

The Government's Plastic Action Plan: From 1st January 2020, the Government wishes to expand the deposit and return system by implementing the deposit system on juice. A ban on thin plastic bags. The plastic sorting system should be the same in all municipalities, and microplastic in cosmetics will be banned.

Mød forskeren

Gang Liu is Professor WSR at SDU Life Cycle Engineering. He describes himself as an enthusiastic industrial ecologist. Industrial ecology covers the idea that waste and recycled materials are used in new production in controlled circuits that basically leave a harmless ecological footprint.


Editing was completed: 01.05.2019