As of today (April 15), the world’s third largest shipping company, stop accepting deliveries of plastic waste on one of its ships. The CMA CGM ban is an important step in a global reaction against rich countries –especially the USA—dump of plastic waste in China and Southeast Asia.
China was once the main destination for plastic waste; in 1992, the country imported 72% of all plastic waste, which it would recycle and use in manufacturing. But as China’s economy has grown, its domestic production of plastic waste has also increased. Now the country has a lot of plastic to recycle, without accepting imports from abroad.
China began limiting plastic imports in 2017 through a political initiative dubbed Operation National Sword. Western countries rushed to divert their plastic exports to Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesiabut these countries also banned or restricted plastic imports in 2019. Due to these import restrictions, US exports of plastic waste fell by more than 70%.
Shipping companies abandon plastic waste shipments
As China and its neighbors have begun to limit plastic imports, shipping companies have become reluctant to accept plastic waste. Destination countries can refuse to accept plastic waste, forcing shipping companies to offload the cargo or bring it back where it came from. “Because of this increased risk, it no longer makes economic sense for shipping companies to continue to transport plastic,” said Aditya Vedantam, assistant professor of management at the University at Buffalo, who has studied the impact of Operation National Sword on American recycling.
Most of the world’s largest shipping companies—Maersk, MScand Hapag-Lloyd—stopped sending plastic shipments to China in 2020. CMA CGM, a French shipping company, goes even further by rejecting plastic shipments anywhere on earth. That leaves few companies willing to ship plastic waste, let alone countries that accept it in bulk. Turkey, Canada, Vietnam and Thailand are now among the biggest importers of waste but impose their own restrictions.
US needs to step up domestic recycling
Now that recycling centers and shipping companies have started banning plastic imports, countries like the United States will have to figure out how to take care of their own plastic waste.
The EU has adopted “extended producer responsibility” regulations, which require companies that manufacture plastic products and packaging to pay for their recycling or disposal. The EU has also created regulations to limit the amount Plastic wrap companies can use and require companies to use recycled plastics.
But the United States is behind in regulating plastic and building the facilities needed to recycle it. The country started throw away 23% more plastic landfills after Operation National Sword went into effect in 2017. State and local governments are just beginning to pass laws mimicking EU regulations, but only in a few jurisdictions. Still, the recent ban could create a robust domestic industry for waste.
“Because we have historically benefited from this ability to export our waste overseas, we have not invested in domestic source reduction or increased recycling infrastructure,” said Anja Brandon, analyst of the Plastics Policy at Ocean Conservancy. “As difficult as it is, all these efforts by other countries and the shipping industry [to block plastic exports] really help us create incentives for us to put in place a waste management system that works. »