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China’s ban on single-use plastics won’t work

What will take the place of all the single-use plastics that China’s nearly 1.5 billion people use in their everyday lives? The alternatives, arguably, are worse for the environment.

6 Min Read
China’s ban on single-use plastics won’t work

China has jumped aboard the “ban” wagon—big time. The country announced last week that it will start phasing out single-use plastics (SUPs) this year, beginning with the elimination of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam takeout boxes, plastic swabs and products such as cosmetics containing microbeads. Caterers will be prohibited from using plastic straws; in certain major urban areas, plastic bags and tableware also will be banned. By the end of 2020, China will be a non-plastic wasteland.

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What will take the place of all the SUPs that China’s nearly 1.5 billion people use in their everyday lives? The ban China is proposing is happening quickly—maybe too quickly—and perhaps without enough time to replace the billions of EPS foam takeout containers and plastic bags that serve people quite well, providing convenient and economical packaging.

The ban also will have an impact on the U.S. plastics industry value chain, according to Perc Pineda, PhD, Chief Economist at the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC). “For example, by the end of 2020, China will phase out production of foam takeout boxes. As of November 2019, the U.S. had a $10.1-million trade surplus in expanded polystyrene with China. This ban now puts that trade surplus at risk,” Pineda told PlasticsToday.

The ban of plastic bags and tableware in key cities—expanding to more areas by 2022—will also impact U.S. trade in plastic products, said Pineda. “In 2018, we had a $16.1-billion trade deficit with China on plastics products, a category that includes “single-use” plastics. Based on our [PLASTICS] estimates, in 2018 the United States imported about $4.7 billion of single-use plastics from China,” said Pineda, or three times what we export in plastics products to China. It goes to follow that a reduction in single-use plastics demand in China will reduce U.S. exports to this market. “If, in fact, ‘single-use’ plastics production will also be phased out in China, we could see trade diversion—meaning imports from other countries into the United States—increase. Alternately, U.S. domestic production will need to increase to meet demand,” Pineda added.

China is the world’s largest import market for plastic in the world, particularly polyethylene used in plastic bags, Joseph Chang, global editor for the chemicals business at market intelligence firm ICIS, told Adele Peters in an article published in Fast Company. “The highest volume plastic in the world is polyethylene plastic, and [China is] the major importer of this,” said Chang. Much of that plastic comes from the United States, where cheap shale gas is used to produce ethylene and plastic pellets that are shipped abroad. In 2018, China imported 6.7 million metric tons of high-density polyethylene (and produced another 7.2 million tons locally), writes Peters.

A misguided policy

So, how does this ban benefit China? Several studies show that SUP alternatives are worse for the environment. From the raw materials to manufacturing to shipping, plastics are by far the most eco-friendly material. Plastic is made from a naturally occurring raw material in the earth (natural gas and oil) that is plentiful and easily obtained. Polymer manufacturing is energy efficient, as is plastic processing.

Our favorite “green” organization—Greenpeace East Asia—is thrilled that China has finally come around to solving its “plastic pollution crisis.” However, that group fears that the plan will not be achievable and that the country will simply “switch from one type of single-use plastic to another.” Biodegradable plastic, which we all know doesn’t actually “degrade” except in the open environment and then over a period of several years, is one option. But, hey, that’s better than a thousand years, or so we’re told. Encouraging the use of biodegradable plastic won’t really be an improvement over the continued use of conventional plastic.

Compostability of plastic has a long way to go before that proves to be a viable material alternative. Also, several articles have noted that China doesn’t have the infrastructure for composting plastics, so that idea is a non-starter.

Can we just imagine a China that replaces single-use plastic EPS foam containers with single-use paper and paperboard packaging? Paperboard lined with polyethylene to prevent leakage makes a great container for Chinese takeaway items. Where would we be globally without the paperboard “bait box” to carry home all that yummy-ness to enjoy again?

Paper bags are also an alternative to SUP bags. Oh, SUP also stands for single-use paper. So which SUP to use? Paper is expensive and uses one big resource that China is finding to be very scarce in that country—water. It takes a lot of water to make paper, and even if the manufacturing plant filters the water after it makes the paper and returns it to the river from which it was drawn, less water is returned because of the amount required by the paper-making process.

China’s water shortage is no secret and it didn’t begin yesterday. For more than two decades, scientists and environmentalists have studied China’s water problems. In 2009, a paper in the Journal of Environmental Management noted that the country has been facing “increasingly severe water scarcity, especially in the northern part of the country (80% of China’s water is in southern China).

“China’s water scarcity is characterized by insufficient local water resources as well as reduced water quality due to increasing pollution, both of which have caused serious impacts on society and the environment,” said the abstract. This scarcity has been created by three factors: “Uneven spatial distribution of water resources; rapid economic development and urbanization with a large and growing population; and poor water resource management.”

According to a 2018 article in China Dialogue, “at over 2,000 cubic meters (m3) per person,” the water resources are above a level where water stress starts (1,700 m3), well above what is considered “scarcity” (1,000 m3). The article calls China’s water situation “acute water scarcity.” The article also noted that many of the country's rivers “are polluted, dammed, diverted and overused by agriculture and industry” and in “an astonishing number of cases, rivers have quite simply disappeared.”

Does China have the resources to build huge paper mills, which tend to be located along rivers, given the water scarcity it is experiencing? In fact, the real crisis in China would appear not to be plastic pollution, but a scarcity of water.

Reusable tableware, straws, utensils, cups, glasses, takeout containers and more sound good until you begin looking at the use of water resources and energy (hot water) along with the sterilizing liquids/soaps that must be used to prevent widespread disease. China currently is fighting an outbreak of the coronavirus that, but for the benefits of SUPs, could be a lot worse! (The virus can spread by touching an object with viral particles on it, and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands.)

Is China really willing to give up the economic, health and environmental benefits of plastics for materials that could be a whole lot worse? Stainless steel? Glass? Maybe it can begin making porcelain dishes and cups again. I hear the market for Chinese ceramic ware is hot.

The best path forward for China, a country that needs a lot of reliable and consistent electricity to run its industrial economic engine, is to incinerate all of the country’s waste. Waste plastic would be a valuable source of energy, given that it has virtually the same BTUs, pound-for-pound, as coal. That would spare China from having to import coal from other countries and perhaps even allow China to slow down the building of coal-fired energy plants. That would help clean the air, something California, Oregon and Washington state would be happy about given that much—some estimates say 70%—of the air pollution on the west coast of the United States comes from China via the jet stream.

Image: Maridav/Adobe Stock

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 20 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree. Reach him at [email protected].

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