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China’s “National Sword” and the International Recycling Debacle

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by B. Arun Srinivas , Senior Research Analyst, Flexible, Rigid, and Bulk Packaging
1 January 2017


China banned 24 types of recyclables in early 2018, including mixed paper and mixed plastics waste. The punitive limit for waste materials import contamination was also reduced from 5–10 percent to 0.5 percent. In this article, we will explain and analyze the implications of this policy, following a year’s implementation, and its effect on global recycling. The United States and Europe, as the main exporters of plastic and paper waste to China, were the most affected by this policy. Container loads of recyclable waste are docked on the country’s shores; therefore, global initiatives and commissions introducing recyclable material in plastic/paper packaging have grown to be of concern owing to this policy.

The “National Sword”

China has been the largest global importer of waste for decades. There were talks at WasteExpo in the spring of 2017 of a National Sword or Green Sword, which came into full effect in March 2018. China has been a major importer of recycling waste and has taken in more than 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste since 1992. Countries such as the United States have sent more than 10 million metric tons of plastic waste to China over the past three decades. During this time, the economy of China has grown tremendously, making it an Eastern superpower. Hence, in a bid to improve quality of life, the nation decided to cut its emissions, including those produced by destroying and processing plastics. National Sword is part of China’s push to become a less polluted country.

China took in 12.6 billion pounds of the world’s plastic waste in the year prior to the National Sword ban. The United States exported 693 million metric tons of plastic waste to China. Germany exported 390 million metric tons, the most among all European countries. The UK sent two thirds of its plastic waste to China. Japan topped the list globally by exporting 842 million metric tons of plastic waste to China. In total, imported plastic waste swelled China’s domestic figures by 10–13 percent, significantly impacting the amount of plastic waste making its way from China’s coast into the world’s ocean.

National Sword Impact in China:

While the ban seeks to reduce plastic waste in the country, China’s population is still responsible for 28 percent of the world’s plastic pollution. In 2017, China saw metal and plastic recycling increase by 11 percent in one year, as opposed to U.S. recycling, which has increased by only 6 percent over the past five years; this is a positive impact of the National Sword ban. Since the ban, China has recycled 282 million tons of metal and plastic, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce.

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