China Now Refuses the West’s Plastic Waste

It had to happen sometime, and the time is now. As of 2017 Jan 01 China is refusing to accept a large proportion of the West’s plastic waste. Consumption in the West has depended on China for decades. Now China makes new pretty things, the West uses them, creates a lot of garbage, then ships a proportion of the garbage plastic back to China for recycling. This needs to stop, and I thank China for pushing us to a better solution to our rampant consumption.

Recycling plastic is a dirty business. It requires a lot of water, you deal with hazardous chemicals and waste, and creates a lot of pollution. China no longer wants to do this type of work.

It is obvious that the West does not completely pay for the consumption of these products. Specifically when the product has been used up, it is the local government that must deal with the disposal of the trash. Computer products must be disassembled in order to recycle precious components. This is not only hazardous to worker health but also to the environment. We in the west obviously do not pay enough to account for the disposal component.

A long-term solution needs to be found. China has, thankfully, stopped this waste transfer, which will benefit the health of many Chinese workers. Huge stockpiles of these plastics and other goods will accumulate all over the world, all looking for a long-term solution.

We could:

  • dig a big hole, throw garbage into it, fill it in: hazardous waste leeches into the underlying water table and poisons our aquifers
  • throw it into the ocean: Fish eat this plastic, become toxic. Then humans eventually eat the largest fish, with higher levels of toxicity
  • learn to break down spent products, extract as much as possible, reuse components for new products: This is expensive, more expensive than we currently pay.

A possible solution is to increase product prices so that the cost of disposal of these products actually pays for the real cost of disposal. Currently we obviously do not charge enough to take care of the disposal costs, because if we did, China’s refusal of our garbage would be easily routed elsewhere. This has not been the case, and we are in crisis.

While I can only speak for Toronto, Canada, we who live in houses are pretty good at separating plastics, organic and recycling waste. What happens after the separation is a mystery. What happens to all the electronics and tech products once they become old and obsolete? We simply throw them away and they become someone else’s problem. Are we so morally shallow and think “Out of sight, out of mind”?

Longer-term solutions and a significant change of attitude must happen, and soon. Mountains of garbage continue to pile up, plastic garbage that once was shipped to our Chinese landfill now becomes our landfill. As it should.

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