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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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Vegetarianism: Tapping Into the Meatless Revolution

This graphic unearths the origins of the meatless revolution, while exploring how the $1.8 trillion meat market is responding to the threat of disruption.

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Vegetarianism: Tapping into the Meatless Revolution

The way people choose and consume their food is changing, and it’s encouraging a sweeping shift from animal-based to plant-based food products.

Whether it’s from the perspective of environmental impact, cruelty to animals, or health benefits, meatless diets are quickly becoming a new normal for people around the world—but where did it all begin?

Today’s infographic unearths the origins of vegetarianism and explores how the industry erupted into a lucrative web of sub-categories that are whetting the appetite of investors the world over.

The Origins of the Meat-Free Diet

Taking a holistic view of vegetarianism, there are several different diets that people typically adhere to. A vegetarian for example, doesn’t eat meat but still consumes animal products such as dairy and eggs. On the other hand, a vegan eats a strictly plant-based diet.

With 70% of the global population now reducing their meat intake, veganism has become a lifestyle choice for many. By 2026, the global market is projected to be worth over $24 billion.

While this seems like a relatively new phenomenon, the meatless revolution has been quietly building for almost two centuries.

  • 1847: The first vegetarian society is formed in England
  • 1898: The world’s first vegetarian restaurant opens in Switzerland
  • 1944: The term “vegan” is coined
  • 1994: The first World Vegan Day is introduced
  • 2014: Influential breakout documentary Cowspiracy is released
  • 2017: 6% of the entire U.S. population claim to be vegan
  • 2018: Roughly 8% of the global population claim to eat plant-based
  • 2020: Acceptance of plant-based diets by both the medical community and general public is at an all-time high

Although vegetarian and vegan diets were once heavily stigmatized, global support is now growing.

Towards a Plant-Based Future

Today, people in dozens of countries are making big strides towards plant-based lifestyles.

China, for example, introduced guidelines to help its population of 1.3 billion people reduce their meat consumption by 50%. These ambitious goals will be driven by consumer’s growing understanding of the positive impacts of eating less meat, such as:

  • Health benefits
    According to the American Heart Association, reducing meat intake could reduce the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers.
  • Environmental impact
    Animal agriculture creates more greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transportation systems combined, but shifting to a plant-based diet could significantly reduce this problem.
  • Animal welfare
    Roughly two thirds of the 70 billion animals farmed annually are cramped in close quarters and given heavy medication. Plant-based diets eliminate animal suffering while lowering demand for other animal food products.

In fact, if more people commit to embracing a plant-based lifestyle, it could result in up to $31 trillion—or 13% of global GDP—in savings for the economy.

Big Players Fight For a Piece of the Pie

Given the newfound consumer demand for meat alternatives, it’s no surprise that global companies are clamouring to enter the market.

Many established food companies such as Nestlé and Danone are either advancing their own formula for plant-based proteins, or acquiring companies with existing experience.

Meanwhile, fast food chain McDonald’s features vegan products as permanent staple on their menu, and report an 80% uplift in customers buying these products in certain countries.

Big Meat Shifts Gears

As new players in the space attempt to cut into the $1.8 trillion global meat market, big meat companies are responding in kind.

Tycoons such as Tyson Foods and Cargill are placing bets on plant-based startups and filling shelves with their own plant-based products.

But while plant-based products created by traditional meat companies may appeal to less rigid flexitarians, vegans and vegetarians may not accept them so readily due to their strong ethics.

Food For Thought

Along with the uncertainty of how these products will be received, there are other challenges that the market must overcome in order to be considered truly accessible. For instance, plant-based alternatives boast higher price points than their predecessor’s products, which may deter consumers from entering en masse.

Regardless, it is clear that the shift to plant-based diets is a disruptive force that could change the food industry over the long term. Early movers are dangling a golden carrot in front of investors—but will they take a bite?

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Visualizing the Human Impact on the Ocean Economy

The ocean economy is under threat. How are human activities impacting the sustainable use of our ocean assets, valued at over $24 trillion?

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Visualizing the Human Impact on our Ocean Economy

When you think of economic output, it’s likely the ocean isn’t the first entity that comes to mind. But from facilitating international trade to regulating the climate, the “blue economy” contributes significant value in both tangible and intangible ways.

The sustainable use of the ocean and its resources for economic development and livelihoods have such far-reaching effects, that its protection is a significant goal of the United Nations, as well as for many other countries and organizations throughout the world.

However, these vital ocean assets are in danger of sinking quickly. Ahead of World Oceans Day on June 8, 2020, we look at the total value of assets that come from our ocean, and how various human activities are affecting these resources.

Global Ocean Asset Value

Economic value from all the oceans is measured both by their direct output, as well as any indirect impacts they produce.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, these combined assets are valued at over $24 trillion. Here’s how they break down:

  • Direct Output: Marine fisheries, coral reefs, seagrass, and mangroves
    Total value: $6.9T
    Examples of direct output: Fishing, agriculture
  • Trade and Transport: Shipping lanes
    Total value: $5.2T
  • Adjacent Assets: Productive coastline, carbon absorption
    Total value: $7.8T, and $4.3T respectively
    Examples of services enabled: Tourism, education/conservation (such as jobs created)

In fact, the annual gross marine product of the oceans is comparable to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of countries, coming in at $2.5 trillion per year—making it the world’s eighth largest economy in country terms.

Unfortunately, experts warn that various human activities are endangering these ocean assets and their reliant ecosystems.

The Cumulative Human Impact on Oceans

An 11-year long scientific study tracked the global effect of multiple human activities across diverse marine environments. The researchers identified four main categories of stressors between 2003-2013.

  1. Climate change: Sea surface temperature, ocean acidification, and sea level rise
  2. Ocean: Shipping
  3. Land-based: Nutrient pollution, organic chemical pollution, direct human pollution, light pollution
  4. Fishing: Commercial and artisanal fishing, including trawling methods

Across the board, climate stressors were the most dominant drivers of change in a majority of marine environments. Similarly, pollution levels have also increased for many ecosystems.

Plastic pollution is especially damaging, as it continues to grow at unprecedented rates, with a significant amount ending up in the oceans. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.

Among the various marine environments, coral reefs, seagrasses, and mangroves proved to be most at-risk, experiencing the fastest increase in cumulative human impact. However, these are also the same ecosystems that we rely on for their direct economic output.

Overall, climate-induced declines in ocean health could cost the global economy $428 billion annually by 2050.

The Ocean Economy is in Hot Water

It can be difficult to truly understand the scale at which we rely on the ocean for climate regulation. The ocean is a major “carbon sink”, absorbing nearly 30% of the carbon emitted by human activity. But acidity levels and rising sea surface temperatures are changing its chemistry, and reducing its ability to dissolve CO₂.

According to the UN, ocean acidification has grown by 26% since pre-industrial times. At our current rates, it could rise to 100-150% by the end of the century. Overfishing is another urgent threat that shows no signs of slowing down, with sustainable fish stocks declining from 90% to 66.9% in just over 40 years.

To try and counteract these issues, this year’s virtual World Oceans Day is focused on “Innovation for a Sustainable Oceans” to discuss various solutions, including how the private sector can work with communities to maintain the blue economy. In addition, there’s a petition in place to urge world leaders to help protect 30% of the natural world by 2030.

Will our human activities continue to stress the ocean economy, or will we be able to positively reverse these trends in the years to come?

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