Thanks to China, more than 100 million tons of plastic waste will soon be nowhere to go

Skagit County Solid Waste Division manager Margo Gillaspy contains recyclable plastic items in Mt. Vernon, Wash., in March 12, 2018 file photo.


Like a giant wave of plastic waste washing up our shores like the stuff of science fiction, think again.

According to a Wednesday and published research by scientists from the University of Georgia, 111 million tons of plastic waste will be “moved”—a euphemism that means that we have no idea where it will go—in 2030.

China has imported 45 percent of the world’s plastic since 1992 for recycling, a ban on the import of non-industrial waste in the beginning of this year. Therefore, tens of millions of yogurt cups, bottles, containers and plastic bags now have nowhere to go.

As the Science Advances study notes, plastic packaging and single-use plastics have the tendency to waste, which contributes to the total of 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste worldwide. A part of that waste is recycled, but the vast majority ends up in landfills or polluting our oceans.

“We know from previous research that only 9 percent of all the plastic ever produced is recycled, and the majority of it ends up in the landfill or in the natural environment,” Jenna Jambeck, associate professor in UGA’s College of engineering and co-author of the study, told UGA News.


Jambeck continued: “About 111 million tons of plastic waste will be supplanted by the import ban through 2030, so we’re going to have to the development of more robust recycling programs in their own country and thinking about the use and design of plastic products as we want to deal with this waste in a responsible way.”

Shown are the sources of plastic waste imports into China and accumulated plastic waste export tonnage in 1988-2016.

(Science Advances)

Since 1992, China has imported about 106 million tons of plastic waste. Higher-income countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas-account for the vast majority of all global plastic waste export, the study says.

“Plastic waste was once a fairly profitable business for China, because they could use or resell the recycled plastic waste,” said Amy Brooks, a doctoral student in UGA’s College of Engineering and lead author of the paper. “But a lot of the plastic China received in recent years was of poor quality, and it was difficult to turn a profit. China is also producing more plastic waste in their own country, so it does not have to depend on other countries for waste.”

Unfortunately, some of the plastic waste is now diverted to countries without the existing infrastructure to manage, even their own waste.

“Without bold new ideas and changes to the system, even the relatively low current recycling rates will not be met, and our previously recycled materials can now end up on the rubbish dump,” Jambeck said.

Christopher Carbone is a reporter for He can be reached at or on Twitter @christocarbone.

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