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UGA Scientists Calculate Impact of China’s Ban on Plastic Waste Imports

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

It’s been six months since China began enforcing their new policy banning the import of non-industrial plastic waste.

Today University of Georgia scientists published their calculations of the global impact China’s “National Sword” policy may have on waste reduction efforts.

Before the ban, about 4,000 shipping containers of recyclables left US ports for China every day.

This exchange was part of a larger trend of wealthier nations with well-developed waste management infrastructure exporting plastic waste abroad to nations that don’t necessarily have the infrastructure needed to adequately manage the waste.


The study found that the ban will cause the displacement of 111 million metric tons of waste by 2030.

“This is a big wake up call,” said Amy Brooks, a doctoral student in UGA’s College of Engineering and the lead author of the paper. “These countries have been largely relying on China and other nations to take their waste and it absolutely should drive the development of better markets here and in other wealthy nations.”

Brooks and Jenna Jambeck, associate professor in UGA’s College of engineering and co-author of the study, published their findings today in the journal Science Advances.

In the 90s, the exchange of plastic waste from the US to China was a symbiotic relationship. The US was introducing single-stream recycling, in which all recyclable commodities are mixed in collection and sorted out later by a facility. Meanwhile, China was seeing markets emerge for plastic waste to be used in plastic production. This meant the US could send the massive amount of recyclable materials being generated to China cost-effectively.

Since then, however, China has prioritized delivering a greener future for the country.

All those tons of plastic waste that will be generated by 2030 will have to be landfilled, incinerated, or else sent to another nation to be processed.

But Brooks hopes this could mean a greener future for the US too.


“Other solutions are reducing plastic usage and restructuring our relationship with plastic so that there's more value with it and it's more easily recycled.”

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