This story is part of an ongoing series on how China is reshaping our world.
The global recycling system is broken. Just don’t blame China.
It would be tempting to blame China. For decades, beginning in the 1990s, most of the world’s plastic ended up there. China bought plastic from rich countries, recycled it, and turned it into cheap products. But in 2017, China decided it didn’t want to take the world’s recycling any more, and it banned all plastic from entering the country.
This single decision has disrupted the entire global flow of recycling. Stuff that once found its way to China is now ending up in Vietnam, Thailand, and most of all, Malaysia. But those countries can’t process the amount of plastic China used to, and waste from the US, Europe, Japan, and beyond is piling up in small mountains. Some of it is being disposed of improperly, by being burnt, releasing toxic chemicals that are endangering whole communities.
Meanwhile, recycling is being dumped in developed countries, too. The stuff Americans meticulously sort into blue bins, for example, is increasingly ending up in landfills, as it has nowhere else to go.
China’s ban didn’t break the system, but it revealed just how broken it really is. In episode one of our video series Because China—on how China’s rise is changing everything—we go to Malaysia, Shanghai, and New Jersey to figure out what is going on in the wild world of recycling. We climb mountains of plastic waste, watch valuable pellets being made, and even glimpse the future of the Chinese recycling industry.