China’s waste import ban emphasizes importance of innovation and the circular economy

  • Published: 10 January 2018
  • Author: Aaron Sloan

The beginning of 2018 ushers in the sizeable challenge of how to handle waste in the face of China’s ‘Green Fence’ campaign banning the import of 24 types of waste. For countries such as the UK, exporter of 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012, this represents a potentially catastrophic problem. Urgent progress is needed to find ways to move from the take-make-waste business model to a profitable way of reducing waste and reliance on natural resources.

China’s ban is already causing a build up of rubbish at recycling plants in the UK and vast quantities of waste paper in Hong Kong. These scenarios will likely be mirrored in countries across Europe, Asia and North America unless solutions are promptly found.

Panaceas for plastic pollution should seek to capture the value of used plastics in addition to reducing its negative environmental and social impacts.

A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to the 2016 World Economic Forum revealed that the resulting annual loss from plastic materials not collected or recycled is between $80 billion and $120 billion.1 The negative economic impacts of plastics on biodiversity, water and air quality, human health, society and the economy have been estimated by the UNEP at $40 billion.2

Three needs for solutions-focused conversations

Last year’s Plasticity forum in Sydney highlighted the following three needs for new conversations focused on solutions to the plastic problem;

1. The need for case studies of global examples of technology and solutions viable at a company and government level to set best practices:

  • Consumer-focused ‘deposit return schemes’ where customers pay a small fee on purchase of a product that is reimbursed on return of the packaging
    • UK: Could lift the UK’s 57 per cent collection rate for plastic bottles to the 80 or 90 per cent seen in other European countries.3 – saving Councils up to 35 million pounds ($45 million) a year
    • Singapore: Distributor Incon Green Singapore’s Reverse Vending Machines will give out cash rebates of three cents per can or bottle and plans to eventually credit the money into users’ ez-link card
    • Hong Kong: The Environmental Protection Department is considering a bottle deposit scheme, but has yet to implement such a program
  • Waste plastic used as consumer product raw material
    • Adidas have partnered with Parley for the Oceans to transform marine plastics into performance sportswear and in 2016 released Bayern Munich and Real Madrid football jerseys
    • Dell processed marine bound plastics and is using the material within the packaging system for the XPS 13 2-In-1 laptop
  • Repurposed to construction materials
    • Plastic can make roads more durable against extreme weather including floods and extreme heat..4 Plastic road technology is being utilised in both India and Indonesia. In 2015, the Indian government made it mandatory to use waste plastic in building most highways

2. The need for inclusive conversations involving designers, engineers, and marketers need to take place to learn about the issues and convert dialogue into better designed products for recycling as well as integrating recycled content as materials:

  • Drink Without Waste: A coalition of 27 parties including key players from the beverage, retail and waste industries, in collaboration with NGOs that are acting to address the 550 tonnes of waste Hong Kong produces each day. In summer 2018, the group will release their first report including recommendations for reducing municipal solid waste from beverage consumption in Hong Kong
  • CEFLEX: Large multinationals such as P&G, Nestle and Unilever have joined 35 other companies representing the entire value chain to make flexible packaging, such as that used for crisp packets and pet food pouches, more relevant to the circular economy by advancing better system design solutions
  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation ‘s Toolkit for Policymakers facilitates public-private dialogue around policy design to realise the benefits of the circular economy. For plastics, this can include developing policies about the use of certain polymers. Some impactful policies can cause little disruption to business and society. For example, in the UK, a 5p charge for single use plastic bags resulted in an 85% reduction in their use

3. The need to explore other solutions such as bioplastics:

  • The global bioplastics for packaging industry is forecasted to grow at an annual average rate of 17% to a market value of almost $7.2 billion in 2022 – an increase surpassing that expected of petro-based polymers
  • Higher growth rates than Europe are forecasted for Asia for bioplastic packaging over the forecast period, with Asia boasting the largest production capacities of bioplastics in 2018
  • Coca-cola has been using PlantBottle packaging since 2009 and has set a target of using 100% PlantBottle packaging for all new PET plastic bottles by 2020
  • Ford and tequila giant Jose Cuervo are exploring the use of agave plants to develop a sustainable bioplastic material to incorporate in vehicles’ interior and exterior components – helping to improve fuel economy and alleviating the use of petrochemicals

At the end of 2017, London-based market-research firm Mintel, predicted five trends that are set to impact the global packaging industry in 2018. Among the trends Mintel stated that brands will be called upon to keep marine conservation at the forefront of packaging development and to anchor the circular economy for future generations.

In a statement, Mintel explained, “While collecting waste plastic from the sea to recycle into new packaging can raise consumer awareness, it won’t solve the problem. In order to keep plastic out of the sea, a renewed effort towards the circular economy is needed to keep packaging material in use.”

Contact CSR Asia if you are interested in finding out about plastic reduction initiatives in the Asia and Pacific region, and globally.

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