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How does the Chinese Waste Import Ban Affect South Africa

By Herman Steenkamp 21st January 2020 Compliance

China has recently ended their two decade legacy as the world’s number one destination for recyclable foreign waste materials.

Everywhere you turn in today’s world of business, disruption is the name of the game. In the recycling industry worldwide, it’s no different. Hands down, the most significant contribution to the industry’s recent global shake-up is China. Who ended their over-two decade legacy as the world’s willing dustbin for recyclable foreign waste. Ever since January 2018 the country has closed its doors to contaminated plastic, cardboard, and all things recyclable. Since then the world’s biggest plastic producers have been scrambling to find a new partner in trash.

How has this ban impacted waste management and the economy worldwide? More specifically, how are South African companies responding to the change, and where can your business stand to gain from the deal?

Let’s have a look.

Why the ban?

Prior to the ban, over 90% of the EU’s and 70% of the US’s collected plastics found their way to China’s borders. By 2016 in fact, China was importing two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste. It was a win-win situation…or so the world thought. China could use all these cheap, contaminated plastics to turn them into cheap fuel and boost their economy. The western world could make all their trash go away, and boost their recycling rates.

But the truth was sadly dirtier. As the western world got “cleaner”, China’s skies were getting smoggier. What seemed a convenient solution to an inconvenient problem, was in fact just a case of passing the buck along to someone else’s shores. So in light of their recent commitments to reduce pollution, China cracked the whip on contamination standards (0.5% impurities allowed) and lost 99% of their business overnight.

Where do we currently stand?

So two years later, where are we now? For the most part, the answer is ‘nowhere, really’. The western world has been looking to the east - nations like Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Malaysia - to pick up the tab, but no one has the infrastructure to handle almost 9 million metric tonnes of plastic scrap a year. All across the world, recycling services are downscaling or closing down, and recyclables are being re-routed to the local landfill and buried. The EU is considering a plastic tax to curb usage, and the US is even begging China to reconsider.

On the surface it seems disastrous; but the truth is, it was a good thing waiting to happen. China’s ban revealed the chasmic fault lines of the global recycling market. Neither was it sustainable for one country to absorb the world’s waste; nor was the poor quality of these products building a kind of clean closed loop that offset our consumption. Most of all, what we were building was an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mindset that failed to change behaviour and push greener innovation.

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The current crisis is forcing a rethink for governments and the recycling industry at large. The solution to China’s crackdown is not to find another China; it’s to develop a whole new approach to environmental sustainability. It’s to break the myth that everything can and will be recycled. It’s to spearhead conversations as business leaders around a more urgent and honest imperative when it comes to greener business behaviour. It’s to change the culture, not just the manufacturing systems.

Businesses can lead this change by investing in closed-loop models that encourage Circular Economy. With today’s extraordinary technology, companies can capitalise on eco-innovations and new markets that are waiting to be defined. New opportunities abound for those who see the gaps - opportunities like organic waste that still have no mandatory targets in most countries for organics’ recycling. But a swathe of research suggests that organics is the future way to go.


What it means for SA

Technically SA recycling is not affected by the ban; all recycling is done inland. But naturally, the interconnectedness of today’s global economy means that everyone's pocket feels the pinch. And like anywhere else, it’s in the best interest of SA businesses to optimise an eco-friendly business model that can scale, streamline, and improve greener habits over time.

SA business leaders stand to gain so much by partnering with waste management providers that reward best practice sustainable business. Waste management companies should not only help maximise quality recycling loads, they should also help you to reduce your waste altogether. What’s more, they should help position your business as a pioneer and champion for sustainability, which is key to secure customer loyalty and trust today.

There is no doubt that China’s import recycling ban has dumped the world into a crisis. However, implementing better separation processes into your business can lead to cleaner recyclables which in turn leads to more of your waste getting recycled locally and therefore less dependence on China”

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Herman Steenkamp

Author Herman Steenkamp

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