And remember China’s economic boom? Thirty years of economic growth does a lot of good for a county – chief among them being the creation of a middle class. A middle class that, not surprisingly, creates its own waste that itself needs to be managed. China, fueled by the world’s waste, eventually came to generate enough of its own that its craving of foreign discards diminished further.
On the world stage, China’s emergence as a superpower (due to its economic boom and the resulting burgeoning middle class) included new climate and pollution reduction targets. They aimed to address the adverse environmental impacts created during the manufacturing frenzy of the previous 30+ years by curbing and reshaping the manufacturing and production processes across the country. Weighing in too is the country’s desire to cast itself in a new environmental light – one outside the shadow of being perceived as the world’s dumping ground.
All these factors – the glut, cost, evolution, and messy nature of plastics, peaking production, the emerging middle class, and the country’s arrival on the global environmental stage led to the country’s decision that, beginning in 2018, it would all but eliminate the import of recycled materials. In addition, the Chinese government placed strict quality requirements on their remaining recycled material imports while banning others outright, including various grades of plastics. The announcement, not surprisingly, sent shockwaves throughout the global recycling industry as material processors and recyclers scrambled to identify new markets for the truckloads of recyclables that continued to arrive at their doors.
Markets emerged, particularly in Southeast Asia, but with only fractions of the appetite held by China. And compared to the formerly reliable, high-volume demands of the Chinese markets, the smaller markets in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia are of greater distance from US ports and are quickly overloaded—resulting in backlogs of material and issues with these countries handling their own domestic waste streams.