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Global recycling in chaos since China no longer wants to be the trash of the world

In early 2018, Beijing banned the import of plastics and several other categories of waste, which it recycled until then.

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To no longer be the world's leading recycling destination, Beijing banned early in 2018 the import of plastics and several other categories of waste that it recycled until then. Chinese plastic imports have thus increased from 600 000 tonnes per month in 2016 to 30 000 tonnes per month in 2018. Since then,The global recycling circuit is in crisis.

"It was like an earthquake"Explains Arnaud Brunet, director of the Brussels-based International Recycling Bureau (BIR), to AFP. "China was the first recyclable waste market". And its closure "created a shock on the whole planet".

In this case, plastic waste from developed countries began to be massively diverted to several countries in South-East Asia, where Chinese recycling companies transferred their activities. Malaysia in particular, which has a large Chinese minority, has become a destination of choice for industrialists looking to relocate their business from China. As a result, the country's plastic imports have tripled since 2016, reaching 870,000 tonnes last year, according to official data.

In the small town of Jenjarom, near Kuala Lumpur, plastic reprocessing plants sprouted like mushrooms, and began to emit toxic fumes. After numerous complaints from residents, the authorities finally acted. Factories have closed and plastic import permits have been temporarily frozen. In September, 33 factories had closed in Jenjarom.

While Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, the first industrial target countries, have taken measures to limit plastic imports, flows have been redirected to other, less regulated countries, such as Indonesia and Turkey, according to a new report by Greenpeace and the NGO Global Alliance for Alternatives to Incineration (GAIA).

For Western countries, which relied on China, looking for new destinations capable of reprocessing their overflow of waste is also a headache. While recycling companies often feel that the costs are too high to reprocess waste in their country of origin, some have resorted to landfills or incinerators for lack of anything better. "After a year, we still feel the effects but we have not yet moved towards a solution"says Garth Lamb, president of the Australian Recycling and Waste Management Association.

But while only 9% of the plastic produced is recycled, the only long-term solution is to make and consume less plastic, argues Greenpeace. "Recycling circuits can not catch up with plastic production"says Kate Lin, campaigning for the organization.

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