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The China Effect on First World Plastic Consumption & Recycling Patterns; By Raakhee Suryapraka

Image Courtesy: Plastic China

Article No. 038/2018

World Environment Day 2018 like Earth Day before it, is themed to address the plastic pollution crisis. In the quest to “Beat Plastic Pollution” no country has had a bigger impact on global patterns of plastic use & reuse than China. China’s decision to ban the import of waste plastic along with other toxic solid wastes for recycling within its borders to tackle its pollution problems sent shockwaves across the first world.

The ban of the import of plastic waste including 24 other types of solid waste, into China came into effect in January this year in time for the start of the Lunar New Year. It’s a foundational policy step towards Chinese president Xi Jinping’s promised ecological revolution. This move is also pre-emptive action taken to address the growing dissent among Chinese against having to live with the effects of a polluted environment – air, land & water! Many also believe this move to be in response to the film, Plastic China (2016), which ends with many of the affected individuals asking what exactly can be done as the government is not doing anything. The documentary directed by Wang Jiuliang and produced by CNET, showcases the plastic problem through the lives of two families – the factory owner’s and a migrant worker – in a small plastic recycling factory. The director had already made the impactful film on China’s overflowing landfills in 2011, Besieged by Waste that had a similarly powerful impact on national solid waste disposal.

Since the 1980s China has emerged as one of the biggest importers of the world’s trash which helped it source monetarily cheap but ecologically costly raw materials for its manufacturing hubs. Yet this powerful documentary that takes a “micro approach to expose the larger problems at play” as well as the deteriorating environment and its effects on the health of the Chinese citizens made the imposition of the ban possible despite 40 cities and over 5000 small plastic recycling factories dependent on the plastic waste for generating revenues and jobs. China’s withdrawal from the recycling pathway where it functioned as the final dumping yard for foreign garbage forced developed nations to face up to their plastics addiction and kick the toxic habit. The makers of plastics and disposable goods and corporations, institutions, companies and businesses that use them need to take ownership for the environmental damage inflicted. Only then can individual efforts to live plastic free and country-wide bans in the use of plastics can be successfully implemented.

As the documentary shows, an abandoned field and water body where the unusable plastic waste from the plastic recycling factory was dumped had plastic food and product wrappers from UK, America, Australia, Japan, Korea, France, Germany and Canada to name but a few from a very cursory examination of the waste by the documentary director. As the farmer of the neighbouring field states, why should and how could the wrappers and waste of these countries be allowed to enter China and pollute it!

The Party replied with the ban and the months that followed saw many of the developing nations announcing changes in their use of plastics and the methods of recycling. Straws, and other single-use plastics were proposed to be banned from United Kingdom, EU, US and Canada by 2020 latest. More plastic substitutes such as the pasta straw and the sea-weed bottle gained popularity and supermarkets in big cities that stocked products with minimal packaging or “naked” as with the Lush line of toiletries and skin care products saw a lot of foot fall and sales.

For those outside China the documentary Plastic China provides an insider’s take on what it is like being part of the bottom end of a booming economy. It was made after the documentary director was part of this recycling outfit in Shandong province for eighteen months.  Yi Jie, the resourceful and stoic 11 year old daughter of the worker who spends her days sorting the plastic that’s been shipped from abroad emerges as the focal point of the film. India too has many such young girls trapped by poverty and plastic recycling facilities and empty plots and neglected water bodies being used as dumping ground for the refuse of plastic recyclers. So it definitely will hit home with all people from the developing world. As this premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November of 2016, and screened for international (read First World) audiences at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival as well, the message will hit home that their trash is mucking up China’s environment requiring more responsible consumption and use.

Just as once US consumerism fuelled the Chinese air pollution crisis, and recent research shows that the impact of climate change damage in China could now be felt in the US economy, so too is the case of the web of plastic use, reuse and recycling. The richer nations and people are more cushioned against the impact but with plastic making its way into the ocean and all food chains – no one is safe for long.

[Ms Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst and Associate Member, C3S. She holds a Master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on sustainable development and social issues. Views expressed by the author are her own and does not reflect the position of C3S]

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