An estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030 as a result of China’s recent ban on the import of most plastic waste, according to new research.
That decision means the U.S. and other industrialized countries that have been exporting their plastic waste to China for recycling will need to find new ways to handle the disposal of their trash as much of it is already starting to pile up in landfills.
"Bold global ideas and actions for reducing quantities of nonrecyclable materials, redesigning products, and funding domestic plastic waste management are needed," the authors of the study wrote in the journal Science Advances.
China has imported about 45% of the world’s plastic waste since 1992 for recycling, the study found.
In the U.S. alone, nearly 4,000 shipping containers full of plastic recyclables a day had been shipped to Chinese recycling plants.
But that has changed since the beginning of this year when China began enforcing its 'National Sword' policy, which bans 24 types of solid waste as the country moves forward on a more aggressive antipollution push.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA), examined how much plastic waste China imported every year from 1988 to 2016 and calculated, based on current trends, that 111 million metric tons of it would be displaced by 2030.
Which raises the question of where will all that waste go?
"It’s hard to predict what will happen to the plastic waste that was once destined for Chinese processing facilities," Jenna Jambeck, associate professor in UGA’s College of Engineering and co-author of the study, said in a statement. "Some of it could be diverted to other countries, but most of them lack the infrastructure to manage their own waste let alone the waste produced by the rest of the world."
Previous studies show only 9 percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.
There are three places it might go, suggests George Leonard, chief scientist of the non-profit environmental group Ocean Conservancy: stockpiled in warehouses with other recycled material, buried in landfills or in the environment and ocean.
Knowing that we have tons of plastic waste potentially washing up on our shores, we need to have a national discussion on the appropriate use of plastic and how we deal with the massive quantities of it moving around the globe, Leonard said.
“Our plastic chickens are coming home to roost and we are going to have to deal with this problem,” Leonard said.