Whether you felt it or not, the earth shaking actions that unfolded recently will ultimately have an impact on every one of us.

Late last month, China notified the World Trade Organization that by the end of 2017 it will ban imports of 24 types of rubbish as part of a campaign against “foreign garbage” and environmental pollution.

Anyone who cares for the planet or is a ratepayer or who relies on kerbside recycling or a reliable supply of commonly recycled plastics for manufacturing will likely sooner or later be affected by the additional costs and environmental burdens that this recent decision by China will create in the short to medium term while the developed world waste processing and manufacturing industries change gears and re-establishes recyclate reprocessing for use in their products. The decision creates massive  policy and physical challenges for all levels of government and industry.

The official announcement to the WTO foreshadowed that China will forbid the import of four classes and 24 kinds of solid wastes, including plastics waste from living sources, vanadium slag, unsorted waste paper and waste textile materials.

The major China HS categories being banned include the following types of materials:

  1. Scrap or waste plastic
  2. Waste of wool or of fine or coarse animal hair, including yarn waste but excluding garnetted stock (garnetted textiles are typically waste materials that have been reduces to a fibrous state for reuse in textile manufacturing)
  3. Garnetted stock of wool or of fine or coarse animal hair
  4. Cotton waste (including yarn waste and garnetted stock)
  5. Waste (including noils (short fibres), yarn waste and garnetted stock) of man-made fibres
  6. Used or new rags, scrap twine, cordage, rope and cables and worn out articles of twine, cordage, rope or cables, of textile materials
  7. Slag, dross (other than granulated slag), scalings and other waste from the manufacture of iron or steel
  8. Ash and residues (other than from the manufacture of iron or steel), containing arsenic, metals or their compounds
  9. ‘Other’, including unsorted waste and scrap.

The five types of waste plastics that China is banning have China HS individual codes as shown as below:

  1. 3915100000 – Ethylene polymer scrap and waste
  2. 3915200000 – Styrene polymer scrap and waste
  3. 3915300000 – Vinyl chloride polymer scrap and waste
  4. 3915901000 – Polyethylene terephthalate
  5. 3915909000 – Other related waste plastics.

While it seems the move has not drawn any public comment from Australian trade groups, it has drawn quick criticism from a major US recycling industry trade group, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), which said it would be “devastating” to the global recycling industry and cost thousands of US jobs.

The Washington-based group said the move could cause severe economic harm in the United States, given that one-third of the scrap recycled in the United States is exported, with China being the largest market. That includes 1.42 million tons (3.1 billion pounds) of scrap plastics, worth an estimated $495 million, out of $5.6 billion in scrap commodities exported from the United States to China last year.

Puzzlingly, this move must also have a major impact on Chinese manufacturers and their local and international supply chains, but for previously waste exporting countries, it likely comes both with major challenges and with the proverbial silver lining opportunity.

The Chinese government cites toxicity and environmental pollution as the major reasons for the ban; it no longer wants China to the ‘garbage bin of the world.’ Government and industry in developed nations like Australia now have the major challenges of dealing with the retention of this waste, and the probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use this as the incentive to facilitate a massive expansion of circular economy awareness and application. We need to see incentives to fast-track the establishment of on-shore waste-reprocessing and re-use industrial ecosystems and facilities.

The big questions this raises are ‘what impact will this have on prices?’ and ‘do we have governments and industry with big enough imaginations to move this into the circular economy space in the short time frame that will be needed?’

To the former question, I suspect the answer will be time dependent. In the short term, I imagine an increase in the price of recycled plastic in China from domestic sources, and in the developed world likewise, alongside a glut of unrecycled plastic heading to landfill.

There is now an even more urgent need to eliminate or at the very least dramatically reduce our reliance on single use packaging, and containers and develop new models for product and beverage delivery that focus on re-useable and circular economy solutions. Given this issue hasn’t really hit the mainstream media in Australia, how are we even going to engage the public to commence the behavioural change and expectation management that is going to be necessary for this change to happen?

It is going to be a major challenge for us all.