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How China’s Plastics Ban Threw Global Recycling into Disarray

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Global Recycling

Global Recycling: Reinventing a Broken System

First developed in the 20th century, plastics have become ubiquitous in our daily lives. Found in everything from food packaging to medical devices, this extremely versatile and cost-effective material has undoubtedly made our lives more convenient.

This convenience comes at a cost, however, and experts warn that plastics’ inability to biodegrade is taking a toll on the planet. To make matters worse, recycling infrastructure around the world is severely underdeveloped.

In this infographic from Swissquote, we recount the end of “easy” recycling, and examine the struggles that many countries are facing as they scale up their domestic capabilities.

The Single-Supplier Global Recycling Model

Since the early 1990s, developed countries have avoided the environmental costs of plastic by outsourcing their recycling to the developing world—more specifically, China.

At the time, this arrangement benefited both parties. On one hand, it was cheaper for developed countries to export their plastic waste rather than process it domestically. China, on the other hand, needed vast amounts of raw materials to fuel its burgeoning manufacturing industries. It also meant that Chinese container ships, which regularly delivered goods to countries like the U.S., would no longer return home empty-handed.

A system that relies heavily on one country can only handle so much, however, and by 2016 China was importing 7 million tonnes of recyclables and waste per year. To make matters worse, plastics production kept growing at a faster rate than the global population:

YearGrowth in Global Plastics Production (%)Growth in World Population (%)
20133.821.19
20144.011.17
20153.541.16
20164.041.14
20173.881.12
20183.161.1

Source: PlasticsEurope, Worldometer

It was clear that this system would soon reach its tipping point, especially with the Chinese government largely committed to going green.

National Sword Policy

China’s solution to cutting down plastic imports was the National Sword policy, which at the start of 2018, implemented an import ban on 24 types of recyclables. The ban was extremely effective—plastic exports to China fell from 581,000 tonnes in February of 2017 to just 23,900 tonnes a year later.

All of this plastic did not simply disappear, though. Plastic-exporting countries scrambled for alternatives, and in some cases, diverted their shipments to nearby countries in Southeast Asia. Governments in the region were quick to respond, either refusing shipments or implementing bans of their own.

Richer countries are taking advantage of the looser regulations in poorer countries. They export the trash here because it’s more expensive for them to process [it] themselves back home due to the tighter laws.

—Lea Guerrero, Greenpeace Philippines

In one noteworthy case, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, threatened to wage war on Canada if it did not take back its shipments of waste. An official later clarified this threat was not to be taken literally.

The End of “Easy” Recycling

Western countries tend to produce more plastics per capita than other countries, but are ill-prepared to begin processing their own plastic waste in a sustainable manner. One critical issue arises from their predominant method of recycling known as single-stream recycling.

Under this method, consumers place all of their recyclables into a single bin. This mixture of cardboard, plastics, and glass is then brought to a material recovery facility (MRF) to be sorted and processed. While this method makes it easier for consumers to recycle, it suffers from two weaknesses:

  1. Contamination: Mixing plastics, chemicals, and food waste adds extra costs to the recycling process. On average, one in four items that arrive at an MRF are too contaminated to be recycled.
  2. Sorting inefficiency: MRFs have a difficult time sorting through the wide variety of materials being placed into bins. Approximately one in six bottles and one in three cans are sorted incorrectly.

With outsourcing no longer an option, MRFs across the U.S. are now dealing with significantly larger volumes. To boost their capacity, some facilities have implemented artificial intelligence (AI) empowered robots that can sort items significantly faster than humans. An added bonus to reducing the human workforce is safety⁠—MRFs frequently have some of the industry’s highest injury and illness incidence rates.

Investing in Domestic Solutions

China’s ban on foreign plastics has exposed the frailty of a single-supplier global recycling model, and is forcing many countries to begin developing their domestic infrastructure.

One emerging leader in this space is the EU, which has passed ambitious legislation to promote recycling industry investment. Recognizing the unsustainability of single-use plastics, the EU has mandated its member states to achieve a 90% collection rate for plastic bottles by 2029. It’s also set a target for all plastic packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2030, an initiative that could create up to 200,000 new jobs.

Aside from the environmental benefits, the global recycling industry could also be a source of economic growth. It’s estimated that between 2018 and 2024 that it will grow at a CAGR of 8.6% to reach $63 billion.

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40 Years of U.S. Wildfires, in One Chart

Wildfires are blazing across the U.S with unprecedented intensity. Here is how activity has evolved over four decades.

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The following content is sponsored by Carbon Streaming

Note: This infographic contains forward looking information based on current expectations and beliefs of Carbon Streaming Corporation. For further information about the risks, uncertainties and assumptions related to such forward looking information, please see their legal notice.

40 Years of U.S. Wildfires, in One Chart

Wildfires are becoming more intense and widespread—largely due to rising temperatures caused by climate change. 

What’s more, experts predict a whopping 50% surge in wildfires by 2100.

We partnered with Carbon Streaming to illustrate four decades (1983–2023) of wildfire activity in the U.S. Let’s dive in.

The Evolution of Wildfires Over Time

The data we used comes from the National Interagency Fire Center and highlights the number of wildfires that occurred between 1983 and 2023, along with the average acres burned over the same time period. The 5-year rolling average was calculated based on the current year plus the preceding four years.

As the table below shows, the total area burned across the U.S. in 2023 was significantly below average, and the number of wildfires was slightly below average due in part to cooler weather conditions.

YearNumber of WildfiresAcres Burned 5-Year Rolling Average
202356,5802,693,9106,436,687
202268,9887,577,1837,651,404
202158,9857,125,6438,141,184
202058,95010,122,3367,818,055
201950,4774,664,3647,818,617
201858,0838,767,4927,604,867
201771,49910,026,0866,715,278
201667,7435,509,9956,575,308
201568,15110,125,1497,215,583
201463,3123,595,6135,875,098
201347,5794,319,5466,340,332
201267,7749,326,2386,534,917
201174,1268,711,3676,535,278
201071,9713,422,7246,767,754
200978,7925,921,7867,821,087
200878,9795,292,4688,256,305
200785,7059,328,0457,989,980
200696,3859,873,7457,561,314
200566,7538,689,3896,300,747
200465,4618,097,880*6,041,568
200363,6293,960,8425,547,210
200273,4577,184,7125,020,983
200184,0793,570,9114,155,432
200092,2507,393,4934,654,449
199992,4875,626,0933,543,860
199881,0431,329,7043,233,357
199766,1962,856,9593,326,931
199696,3636,065,9983,169,525
199582,2341,840,5462,547,041
199479,1074,073,5793,103,256
199358,8101,797,5742,654,002
199287,3942,069,9293,296,346
199175,7542,953,5783,371,819
199066,4814,621,6213,324,936
198948,9491,827,3102,979,841
198872,7505,009,2902,844,061
198771,3002,447,2962,106,936
198685,9072,719,162N/A
198582,5912,896,147N/A
198420,4931,148,409N/A
198318,2291,323,666N/A

*2004 fires and acres do not include state lands for North Carolina

What’s the impact of the increasing burned areas and severity of wildfires over time? 

Simply put, when wildfires burn, they release smoke and gas into the air which makes the Earth warmer, making it easier for more wildfires to start and spread. This cycle is often referred to as the fires and climate feedback loop, and is the reason why experts believe that wildfires will only continue to worsen.

Wildfire Havoc in the West

2023 marked a year of severe wildfire destruction on the West Coast and in Hawaii. The Maui wildfires in August, for example, led to the destruction of 2,308 structures and at time of writing, 5,000 residents are still displaced six months later. Additionally, the cost of rebuilding Maui could exceed $5 billion and take several years.

Post-wildfire restoration is a critical piece of climate change mitigation, particularly in the states that need it the most. 

What Can Be Done?

In partnership with Mast Reforestation, Carbon Streaming is advancing its pipeline of post-wildfire reforestation projects in Western U.S. states. 

To date, Carbon Streaming has entered into carbon credit streams to provide funding for three reforestation projects—Sheep Creek in Montana and Feather River and Baccala Ranch in California.

Mast Reforestation’s unique approach combines proven reforestation practices with new technology to regrow resilient, climate-adapted forests. Want to know more?

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