Where Does your Plastic Waste Go?

Global plastic recycling has been thrown into disarray - after one of the world's biggest recyclers, China, changed the rules in relation to the type of waste it will import.

Many people think that each country recycles all of its own plastic, but this isn't the case. If you're wondering where your plastic waste goes, you may be surprised to learn that until recently, a lot of it was shipped out to China.


© Kirill Gorlov / Adobe Stock

Plastic crisis

The nation was dubbed the "world's salvage king" and used to buy any plastic scrap, playing a key role in the global 150 billion recycling industry, but early in 2017, China made changes to its legislation, effectively banning any recycled plastic scrap that wasn?t 99.5% pure from entering the country.

It's a little-known fact that the wealthier nations have traditionally sold their recycled plastic to Asia, as it's easier and more cost-effective to ship it overseas than to process it on home soil. Losing China as a major importer has had a detrimental effect on the world's recycling system.

Reports suggest it has led to a crisis in South East Asia, where scrap plastic is piling up after recycling operations in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia bought the excess, but they hadn't bargained for the sheer volume of waste that China used to absorb and they simply couldn't cope.

Meanwhile, the plastic waste began to pile up in the UK, Australia and some parts of the United States, as world leaders attempted to find another place to recycle plastics. China had salvaged plastics for around a quarter of a century, so its refusal created a crisis of massive proportions.

Landfill problems

The unfortunate blip in the recycling programme couldn't have come at a worse time, since scientists and environmental campaigners are pressing for even more plastic recycling to take place. The world's oceans have become a dumping ground for waste plastic, but campaigners don't want the excess to end up at landfill sites either.

Statistics show that individually, every person produces around 2.7 kilos of rubbish per day. In the UK, we produce more than 100 million tonnes of rubbish every year. One tonne is the weight of a small car, putting into proportion the vast bulk of the waste we produce.

Despite efforts to promote recycling, around 55% of rubbish still ends up at landfills, with 33% going to be recycled. Landfill sites have their own issues, as they can produce a toxic liquid called leachate, which is made up of dissolved chemicals, organic acids and rainwater.

If produced in abundance, it can soak into the surrounding land, causing contamination. It can also seep into waterways, contaminating them as well. This is one reason why governments are trying to cut down on dumping at landfills.

Reduce single-use plastics

When plastic is simply dumped in a landfill site, it can take hundreds of years to decompose, so the only way to ensure it doesn't cause problems in the future is to make sure it's recycled, or to stop manufacturers from making as many single-use plastics in the first place.

As a result of the problems caused by China's refusal to accept much of the plastic waste it took in the past, analysts are predicting "a high level of uncertainty" in the recycling market.

While the hunt is on for other Asian countries to take the bulk of plastic waste that China once recycled, industry insiders are admitting no-one can predict what will happen in the near future.

Solent Plastics doesn't sell single-use plastics. All of our products can be used time and time again. Our range of recycling storage and plastic waste bins can help you to manage your own commercial or domestic recycling schemes. Please contact us to find out more.