China unveils 5-year plan to control plastic pollution

BEIJING, Sept. 15 (Xinhua) — China on Wednesday unveiled a plan on controlling plastic pollution over the next five years, aiming to effectively curb white pollution by 2025.

The action plan, jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, aims to “further improve the management of the entire chain of plastic pollution”. It details measures to cut the production and use of plastics, develop alternatives for plastics, and substantially reduce the amount of plastic waste in landfills and environmental leakage during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025).

By 2025, key sectors such as retail, e-commerce and express delivery are expected to drastically cut the unreasonable use of disposable plastics, according to the plan.

In 2020, China produced about 60 million tonnes of plastic wastes, of which about 16 million tonnes was recycled, according to the China National Resources Recycling Association. Around 20% of the world’s single-use plastic were produced in China in 2019, although much of this is consumed in other countries such as the United States.

The United States historically has generated more plastic waste than any other country in the world, although China’s rapid economic growth suggests it has now replaced the US.

In 2016, it was estimated that the U.S. produced 42 million metric tons of plastic waste. At that time this was roughly double the amount of plastic waste produced in China. At a company level, the two largest producers of plastic waste are the US companies Exxon Mobil and Dow. China’s state-owned oil and gas firm Sinopec was the world’s third-largest single-use plastic waste producer, at about 5.3 million tonnes.

The United States is one of the biggest exporters of plastic scrap in the world. Until 2017 the US used to ship the majority of its plastic waste to China, but a Chinese ban on solid waste imports in 2018 meant the U.S. had to look elsewhere to send its waste.

In 2019 new regulations regarding waste plastic shipments were approved under the international Basel Convention – which the U.S. did not join – and in January 2021 came into effect.

Prior to China’s 2018 ban on importation of solid wastes, it had processed about 45% of the world’s plastic scrap.

Recent changes to the Basel Convention, which restricts the movement of scrap plastics (among other wastes) to developing countries in an effort to mitigate the global plastic crisis. However, the Basel Convention is one of 4 major international environmental treaties the U.S. has “signed” but has not ratified, meaning it is not bound by the rules. Despite these new regulations being introduced in early 2021, the U.S. exported millions of tonnes of plastic scrap to developing countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

The United States (9 percent) ranks behind Europe (30 percent) and China (25 percent) in recycling. Recycling in the U.S. has remained at nine percent between 2012 and 2021.

Currently, the world produces approximately 370 million tonnes of plastic wastes per year. Fifty percent of global plastics production is for single use. Single-use plastics are goods that are made primarily from fossil fuel–based chemicals (petrochemicals) and are meant to be disposed of right after use—often, in mere minutes. Single-use plastics are most commonly used for packaging and service-ware, such as bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags.

US single-use plastic waste per capita is 52 kilograms annually, compared to China’s 18 kilograms per year or only about one-third of the USA’s per capita rate, despite being home to about 1.07 billion more residents.

According to the SCMP (16 Sept 2021), Zhang Deyuan, deputy director of the research institute under NDRC, said that “Plastic pollution has become a focal environmental issue, raising common concerns around the world. The core of plastic pollution control is to build strong barriers [against] plastic leakage to the environment.”

China will promote the use of alternatives to plastic, such as bamboo, wood, paper and degradable plastics. It will also ramp up research on degradable-plastic technologies and encourage the orderly development of related industries.

The recycling and disposal of plastic waste will also be improved across the country, while plastic waste in key water areas, scenic spots and rural areas will be cleaned up, the plan states.

The action plan assigned responsibilities to several state departments.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) will take charge of curbing the production of ultra-thin plastic shopping bags and products containing plastic microbeads that are harmful to the environment and human health. The State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) will be responsible for the supervision and restriction of excessive packaging of commodities.

The plan stipulates that by 2025, sectors including retail, e-commerce and express parcel delivery should cut out the “unreasonable” use of disposable plastics.

The country aims to have at least 10 million reusable boxes for express delivery in use by 2025, and central departments including the Ministry of Commerce and the State Post Bureau will be responsible for the supervision and implementation of those measures.

The nationwide capacity for urban domestic waste incineration should reach 800,000 tons per day by 2025, according to the plan, and the amount of plastic waste that goes directly to landfill must be greatly reduced. The targeted recycling rate of agricultural plastic film is 85 per cent, the plan states.

Sources: Xinhua, 15 Sep 2021; South China Morning Post, 16 Sep 2021; Statista, 17 Sep 2021;