For decades China imported much of the world’s plastic waste; but a recent import ban requires new ideas and systemic change.
The rapid growth of the use and disposal of plastic materials has proved to be a challenge for solid waste management systems with impacts on our environment and ocean. While recycling and the circular economy have been touted as potential solutions, upward of half of the plastic waste intended for recycling has been exported to hundreds of countries around the world. China, which has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, recently implemented a new policy banning the importation of most plastic waste, begging the question of where the plastic waste will go now. We use commodity trade data for mass and value, region, and income level to illustrate that higher-income countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation have been exporting plastic waste (70% in 2016) to lower-income countries in the East Asia and Pacific for decades. An estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced with the new Chinese policy by 2030. As 89% of historical exports consist of polymer groups often used in single-use plastic food packaging (polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyethylene terephthalate), bold global ideas and actions for reducing quantities of nonrecyclable materials, redesigning products, and funding domestic plastic waste management are needed.