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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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Agriculture

Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years

The Western U.S. is no stranger to droughts. But this year’s is one of the worst yet. Here’s a historical look at U.S. droughts since 1999.

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us drought 2021

Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years

The Western U.S. is experiencing one of the worst recorded droughts in the last 20 years.

Temperatures from California to the Dakotas are currently hovering around 9-12°F above average—but how bad is the situation compared to past years?

This animated map by reddit user /NothingAbnormalHere provides a historical look at droughts in the U.S. since 1999, using data and graphics from the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM).

What is the U.S. Drought Monitor?

Over the last two decades, the USDM has been tracking, measuring, and comparing droughts across America.

While droughts can be difficult to classify and standardize, there are various factors that can be used to gauge when a region is experiencing drought. These include measurements of snowpack levels, soil moisture, and recent precipitation.

To track these conditions (and make sense of them), the USDM synthesizes data from a plethora of meteorological sources, including the Palmer Drought Severity Index and the Standardized Precipitation Index.

From there, conditions are broken down into categories, ranging from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (Exceptional Drought). A map is released each week that shows which states are experiencing drought, and to what degree.

Where Are The Most Drought-Prone Areas?

According to a map created by climatologist Becky Bolinger (which is published on Drought.gov), Arizona and Nevada are the most historically drought-prone states—the two have experienced drought more than 50% of the time tracked by the USDM.

Most Drought-Prone States

California is high on the list as well, with the state experiencing drought at least 40% of the time.

As the historical data shows, the West is no stranger to droughts. However, this year’s drought has become particularly worrisome because of its intensity and breadth.

Right now, more than a quarter of the West is experiencing a D4 level drought—a new record. To help put things into perspective, here’s a look at how much overall land area in the West has been in drought, since 2000:

West Percent Area in U.S. Drought

When a region is experiencing a D4 drought, possible impacts include:

  • Water Scarcity
    Lower reservoirs, combined with decreased snowpack lead to water shortages.
  • Crop losses
    Water shortages mean less water for fields, which can lead to acres of fallow (unused) farmland.
  • Wildfires
    Dry conditions and lack of moisture increase the risk of wildfires.

Is This the New Norm?

This record-breaking drought is wreaking havoc across the West. In California, reservoirs have about half as much water as they usually do, and crop failures are happening across Colorado.

The worst part? Some experts believe that this could be the new normal if human-driven climate change continues to increase average temperatures across the globe.

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Visualized: The Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Do sustainable investments make a difference? From carbon emissions to board diversity, we break down their impact across three industries.

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Sustainable Investment

Visualizing the Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Sustainable investments are booming.

Between January and November 2020 alone, investments in sustainable ETF and mutual funds grew 96%. The UN Principles of Responsible Investment now has over 3,000 signatories representing over $100 trillion in assets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission established a Climate Risk Unit to analyze climate risk across derivative markets, and as of March 2021, new sustainability disclosures have come into effect in Europe.

But how do we know if sustainable investments have made a difference?

To answer this question, the above infographic from MSCI examines the effect of a sustainable investment dollar by looking at real-world examples.

A Sustainable vs. Unsustainable Dollar

To start, investing legend Benjamin Graham has compared the stock market to a “voting machine.” Just as consumers vote with their purchasing decisions, investors vote with their investment dollars. Especially in the short term, as more dollars flow to sustainable companies, this builds their exposure and access to capital.

In the long term, meanwhile, the market can be compared to a weighing machine. The market recognizes companies with profitable business models that improve their intrinsic value over time. Ultimately, this allows sustainable companies to expand and continue operating.

Given the rising momentum in both green assets and climate targets, here is how investment dollars have influenced and driven change across three industries.

1. Clean Energy vs. Fossil Fuel

Over the last several years, the energy sector has been associated with many of the problems causing climate change. For this reason, many investors are seeking out greener energy alternatives. But how does moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to an ESG leader support the environment and society?

First, here is a brief explainer of ESG laggards and leaders:

  • ESG laggards: companies with the weakest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
  • ESG leaders: companies with the strongest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
Industry laggard: U.S. oil & gas companyIndustry leader: U.S. utilities company
Scale of carbon-intensive business lines equal to 73% of its operation47% lower CO2 emissions than the industry average
This is the equivalent of adding 26 million cars on the road annuallyThis is the equivalent of removing 9.9 million cars off the road annually
1 of 20 oil and gas companies are responsible for contributing to one third of GHG emissions since 1965Uses 3X as many renewable sources than industry average
3X fewer jobs are created vs. energy efficient sector, resulting in lower productivityThis is roughly the same as saving over 9 million pounds of coal burned
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: AAA

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Based on the above example, investors have the ability to finance powerful green initiatives that reduce emissions by almost half, relative to their peers.

2. Safe vs. Unsafe Working Conditions

Weak safety protocols are a key sustainability issue for the industrial sector. Here’s how two companies compare:

Industry laggard: South African mining companyIndustry leader: U.S. mining company
11 fatalities in 2019Zero fatalities in 2019
Faced lawsuits from miners surrounding lung diseases contracted from dust exposure in gold mines
Settlement cost: $350 million
Board-level oversight monitors health and safety performance
Lags behind peers in high incident ratesLeads peers in low incident rates
Lags behind peers in setting incident reduction targetsLeads industry in lost time incident rate & total recordable injury rate
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Despite the risks involved in the sector, investors can choose to support companies that take greater precautions to protect their workers.

3. Building Trust vs. Losing Trust

Over the last several years, the financial sector has faced increased scrutiny over fraudulent activities. Moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to ESG leader may make a difference:

Industry laggard: U.S. bankIndustry leader: Dutch bank
$3 billion settlement in creating fictitious accounts to meet aggressive sales targetsSustainable finance portfolio valued at over $20 billion
Drop in top-tier bank ratings13% annual increase in climate finance
Board effectiveness questionedIncludes over 60 green loans, mobilizing environmentally friendly projects
Resignation of board membersOver 55% of board is female
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

From board diversity to green loans, a sustainable investment dollar supports companies that are actively advancing society and the environment.

Sustainable Investment: The Time to Act

Recently, investor dollars and shareholder activism have been closely linked.

Between 2018 and 2020, large institutional investors filed 217 shareholder proposals on climate change alone, putting increased pressure on companies. Meanwhile, 270 proposals were filed on corporate political activity and 228 on fair labor and equal employment opportunity over the same timeframe. Across all ESG proposals, $2 trillion in assets were pushing for more equitable corporate action.

Through the power of a dollar, investors can send a clear signal to companies: the time for sustainable investing is now.

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