China, the biggest producer of plastic waste on the planet, is poised to kick off
a five-year plan to reduce and replace the pollutant, in an ambitious programme with far-reaching implications on the nation’s supply chain, while creating billions of dollars of new business opportunities.
By the year’s end, a ban will take effect on the production and sale of disposable foamed plastic tableware, straws and plastic cotton buds. Non-biodegradable plastic bags will go in phases starting this year, expanding nationwide by 2025. Hotels must stop handing out free disposal plastic products, while couriers are instructed to stop using non-biodegradable plastic packaging by 2025.
The drastic action points could not have come sooner, as China’s mountain of mismanaged, or inadequately disposed, plastic wastes – projected at 26 per cent of global total by 2025 according to scientific research cited by University of Oxford – have damaged the environment irreparably. Of the 63 million tonnes of plastic wastes China produced last year, 30 per cent were recycled, 32 per cent went into landfills, 31 per cent were burnt and 7 per cent were abandoned, according to the China National Resources Recycling Association.
“Compared to practices in Europe and many other nations, this new policy framework is the most comprehensive in the world and will provide good reference value for other nations,” said Zhao Kai, vice-chairman of the China Association of Circular Economy (CACE), a state-backed body that supports the government’s resource conservation and environmental protection policy formulation and implementation.
China’s journey to cut plastic waste actually began in 2018, when the country that imported half of the world’s recyclable plastic refuse banned the practice, forcing waste exporters like Japan and the United States to find new ways to deal with their garbage.
Recycling supported a huge processing industry in China, from the
e-waste recyclers of Guangdong province to one of the country’s wealthiest women in Nine Dragons Holdings, but took a huge toll on the environment. Left unchecked, China will have up to 17.8 million tonnes of littered plastic waste to deal with by 2025, the projection cited by Oxford shows. It’s not just China’s problem. East Asia and South Asia contributed 71 per cent of global mismanaged plastic wastes in 2015, according to the university’s data.
Plastic waste that gets into the ocean releases toxins as the material breaks down slowly. Scraps end up being eaten by seabirds, turtles and fish, while plastic fasteners often suffocate marine mammals and seabirds.
The planet’s oceans will have more plastics than fish by 2050, going by the current rate of pollution, according to a warning by the United Nations Environment Programme.
Of the 100 million tonnes of plastic waste generated by 2 billion people living within 50 kilometres from the coast, some 8 million tonnes of plastics – equivalent to the amount carried by a garbage truck every minute – enters the ocean annually, according to Washington-based non-profit organisation Ocean Conservancy. This adds to an estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating the marine environment.
Global plastic pollution is accelerated by decades of rising consumerism, urbanisation and recently by the coronavirus pandemic that drove up plastic packaging used in online shopping and takeaway food consumption.
An estimated 40 per cent of global plastic wastes end up in the environment, with the rest recycled, incinerated or put into landfills, according to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Formed last year, it is backed by 47 international petrochemical producers, consumer brand owners, retailers and recyclers.
“Based on the numbers we are seeing, if we don’t see a change in the way plastic wastes are managed and the establishment of sustainable consumption systems, a lot more of them will end up in the environment,” said Jacob Duer, the Alliance’s Singapore-based chief executive. “The plastic problem is immense, urgent and complex”
The vast majority of used plastic packaging materials’ estimated potential recycling economic value of US$80 billion to US$120 billion is lost worldwide every year, as only 14 per cent of used plastic packaging are collected for recycling, according to the World Economic Forum.
“We want to ensure that we capture the plastic before it enters the environment, but equally important, that the value of the plastic is captured through the circular economy thinking,” Duer said.
While implementation details of support policies are lacking in Beijing’s circular on the development of replacement products, Zhao said market forces will work out what products and which companies will emerge as winners.
“Many replacement products, such as biomass-based ones, are being developed,” he said. “Some companies have reach a certain level of production scale, while others are conducting trials.”
One of them is Kingfa Science & Technology. The company’s fully biodegradable plastics sales grew 49 per cent year-on-year, while that of eco-friendly high-performance recycled plastic rise 12.5 per cent in the year’s first half.
Kingfa said it expects to complete a project next year to double its 60,000 tonne-a-year production capacity for polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT), a biodegradable and compostable copolymer.
The Guangzhou-based company is also building a 30,000 tonne-a-year production line for polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic material that is biodegradable when heated to above 55 degrees Celsius.
The company is working with Coca-Cola, L‘Oréal and Unilever to use recycled fossil fuel-derived plastics in personal care products and food packaging materials.
Foreign firms are also doing their part. Days ahead of Beijing’s January reduce-and-replace edict, German chemical firm Covestro joined Chinese bottled water and beverage company Nongfu Springs and recycling firm Ausell to annually collect and recycle one million large polycarbonate water barrels weighing 1,000 tonnes no longer used. Nongfu this week raised HK$8.35 billion in the
most overbought initial public offering in Hong Kong’s financial history.
The barrels are chopped, washed and re-pelletised, before being transformed by Covestro through chemical processes into plastics used to make products from electronic and home appliances to housing and auto parts.
“We did have a few recycling partners in the past, but this new three-way partnership to close the [material life cycle] loop is really the first time,” said Holly Lei Huanli, president of Covestro China. “It is the first project of its type. Such partnership greatly improves the traceability and quality of recycled materials.”
However, not all polycarbonate can be easily recycled, she noted. Car headlamp covers are difficult to recycle because they are painted with a protective scratch-proof coating.
Covestro is the materials science unit spun off from German drug maker Bayer in 2015, which invented the versatile plastic polycarbonate in 1953.
The biodegradable plastics industry is expected to see explosive growth and benefit from China and global policies to reduce traditional plastics usage, Zhongtai Securities’ analysts said last month.
The global market for biodegradable packaging is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 13.6 per cent to US$32.7 billion by 2027 from an estimated US$13.4 billion this year, according to market researcher ReportLinker.
The European Union last year passed a law banning single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery, straws, polystyrene cups and cotton buds sticks by next year.
Member states must achieve a 90 per cent collection target for plastic bottles by 2029, and which will have to contain at least 30 per cent recycled content by 2030.
Legislators in California, which before 2018 sent most of its recyclable plastic wastes to China, last year failed to pass the most ambitious bill in the nation to ban the production or sale of any non-recyclable single-use plastic packaging in the state by 2030.
Still, legislation is only part of the solution to the global plastic problem, which also requires innovation by industries, funding and consumers’ support to make plastic consumption sustainable.
Current challenges facing the industry include insufficient incentives and infrastructure to collect sufficient plastic materials and the technical barriers in turning plastic materials back to usable format, said Jonathan Penrice, the Asia head of the US chemicals producer Dow.
“The plastic recycling problem requires local solutions,” Penrice said. “The petrochemical industry has been around for 100 years, while the circular economy is only just starting Both the challenges and opportunities are pretty immense. It will require a lot of material science innovation.”
The company aims to collect, reuse or recycle one million tonnes of plastics by 2030 through its direct actions or partnerships, and have all its products sold into packaging material that can be reusable or recyclable by 2035.
In Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, India and the US, it has projects to shred and melt mixed plastic wastes, to replace 4 per cent of bitumen used in asphalt roads.
Dow is also in early stages of collaboration with Netherlands-based recycling technology developer Fuenix to develop a chemical process to degrade mixed plastic wastes into liquid oil and gases at high temperature, and reuse the material to make plastic products.
Alliance to End Plastic Waste, of which Dow and Covestro are founding members, has pledged to spend US$1.5 billion over five years to help fund projects of start-ups to come up with innovative solutions to cut and reuse plastic waste.
The alliance has had early discussions with multilateral development banks on co-financing pilot integrated plastic wastes management and recycling projects, to “de-risk” and make them “bankable” for commercial financiers including venture capital firms, said its CEO Duer.
“We have been contacted by venture capital firms on a weekly basis looking for scalable projects, but they are not yet available,” he said.