How China's Plastics Ban Threw Global Recycling into Disarray
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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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Mapping the World’s Forests: How Green is Our Globe?

Where are the world’s forests? These high-resolution maps show how the world’s carbon-sequestering forests are spread.

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Map of the world's forests

Mapping the World’s Forests: How Green is our Globe?

According to the United Nations (UN), forests cover 31% of the world’s land surface. They absorb roughly 15.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂) every year.

More than half of this green cover is spread across the boreal forests of Russia and Canada, the Amazon in South America, and China’s coniferous and broad-leaved forests. These carbon-sequestering forests purify the air, filter water, prevent soil erosion, and act as an important buffer against climate change.

RankCountryForest Cover (in millions of hectares)
#1🇷🇺 Russia815
#2🇧🇷 Brazil497
#3🇨🇦 Canada347
#4🇺🇸 United States310
#5🇨🇳 China220
#6🇦🇺 Australia134
#7🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo126
#8🇮🇩 Indonesia92
#9🇵🇪 Peru72
#10🇮🇳 India72

This series of maps by Adam Symington uses data sourced from images collected aboard the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite to reflect the ratio of the world’s surface covered with tree canopy to non-green areas.

To explore the entire high resolution forest map, click the image above. Below we’ll take a closer look at some of the world’s green zones.

Asia

Home to the boreal forests of Russia, China’s broad-leaved forests, the mangrove forests of Indonesia, and the green belt along the mighty Himalayas, Asia boasts some of the richest and most biodiverse green canopies of the world.

mapping tree cover in Eurasia

Russia holds more than one-fifth of the world’s trees across 815 million hectares—larger than the Amazon’s canopy. Like the country’s geography, most of Russia’s forests are situated in Asia, but spread into Europe as well.

To the southeast and with a forest cover of almost 220 million hectares, China is the fifth greenest country in the world. However, this was not always the case.

In 1990, China’s forests stretched across only 157 million hectares, covering 16.7% of its land. By the end of 2020, this forest cover reached 23.4%, thanks to decades of greening efforts.

On the other hand, the continent’s third most biodiverse country—Indonesia—is losing its green canopy. With a 92 million hectare-wide forest canopy, the country is home to between 10 and 15% of the world’s known plants, mammals, and birds. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, 74 million hectares of the country’s rainforest have been logged, burned, or degraded.

Meanwhile, the 72 million hectares of Indian forest cover can be followed closely with the eye. From the rainforests along the Himalayas in the northeast, to montane rainforests of the South Western Ghats, and finally to the coastal mangrove forests.

The Amazon and Congolian Rainforests

mapping tree cover in south americaIn South America, Brazil has the second-largest green cover in the world.

Most of its 497 million hectare-wide forest cover falls within “the lungs of the planet”—the Amazon rainforest.

One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Amazon rainforest is said to house about 10% of the world’s biodiversity, including over three million wildlife species and over 2,500 tree species.

mapping tree cover in africaOn the other side of the Atlantic, extending along the Congo River basin and its many tributaries, are the Congolian rainforests.

Spread across nine countries in Central Africa, this collection of tropical moist broadleaf forests is one of the remaining regions in the world that absorbs more carbon than it emits.

With 126 million hectares of the world’s green cover, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) contains the largest part of this rainforest, equal to about 60% of Central Africa’s lowland forest cover.

North American Forests

Canada, the United States, and Mexico combine for 723 million hectares of the world’s forests. The vast stretches of pine and fir trees in the Great White North, coupled with the United States’ mixed variety of forests, make the continent one of the largest carbon sinks in the world.

mapping tree cover in north america

With over 347 million hectares of forests, Canada ranks third in the list of greenest countries. Approximately 40% of its landmass is tree-covered, representing 9% of the global forest cover.

Its boreal forests store twice as much carbon per unit as tropical forests and help regulate the global carbon footprint.

The United States, on the other hand, holds about 8% of the world’s forests. Spread across 310 million hectares of land, these diverse forests range from the boreal forests of Alaska to pine plantations in the South, and the deciduous forests in the Eastern United States to the dry coniferous forests in the West. The country is also home to temperate rainforests along its West Coast and tropical rainforests in Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

The World’s Lost Forests

While China and a few select countries have proven that there is hope for building out the world’s forests, the story is different in other places around the world. This map by Adam Symington uses data from the University of Maryland to track the changes in the world’s forest cover from 2000 to 2021.

Map showing forest cover loss

Since 2000, the world lost over 104 million hectares of pristine and intact forest landscapes. In 2020 alone, over 10 thousand square kilometers of the Amazon were destroyed for the development of roads.

Deforestation and fragmentation are caused by a range of human development activities. But they are also exacerbated by climate change, with increasing forest fires, hurricanes, droughts, and other extreme weather events, as well as invasive species and insect outbreaks upsetting forest ecosystems.

At the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) held in Montréal, nations across the world committed to the 30X30 plan, which called for the conservation of the world’s land and marine ecosystems by 2030. Alongside other commitments to end deforestation and grow the world’s canopies, there is still hope for the world’s forests.

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