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China's Decision to Ban the Import of Plastic Waste Has Sent the Rest of the World Scrambling to Figure Out How to Recycle it All
TOPSHOT - Workers operate a machine that compacts recyclable plastics at a recycling facility in the Sham Shui Po district of Hong Kong on July 6, 2018. (Photo by VIVEK PRAKASH / AFP) (Photo credit should read VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP/Getty Images)

When you responsibly toss that water bottle into a recycling bin, you assume that it will be somehow recycled—maybe reborn as a park bench, a fleece jacket, or another water bottle. That reuse cycle was made possible largely due to China. For more than 25 years, recycled bottles and other plastic waste from the West were shipped to China, where they were sorted, cleaned, and turned into plastic pellets, which could be melted and turned into new products. Since 1992, about 45 percent of the world’s plastics sorted for recycling were sent to China—about 106 million metric tons of the stuff, which increased in volume by 800 percent until 2016, when China was receiving about two-thirds of the world’s plastic trash. Up until 2018, China accepted garbage from 43 countries. And then China got sick of taking in our garbage.

In January of 2018, China banned the import of plastic waste. The National Sword policy was created to protect China’s environment. Air and water quality in many parts of the nation have been devastated, first by the initial production of plastics, a petroleum product, and next by the return of all that garbage, much of which couldn’t actually be recycled after all due to contamination issues. The new policy bans 24 types of solid waste, including various plastics and unsorted mixed papers. Many trash exporting countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia, objected to the plan, as they now have to be responsible for their own garbage. So what happens now?

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