Kate O’Neill on Plastic and Waste in Asia

Kate O’Neill Is a Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, specializing in Global Environmental Politics and Governance, and the global political economy of waste. She has been featured on NPR shows such as Fresh Air, Here and Now and Marketplace, and quoted in the Economist and other venues on waste and recycling, She has authored three books: Waste Trading Among Rich Nations: Building a New Theory of Environmental Regulation (MIT Press, 2000) and The Environment and International Relations (Cambridge University Press 2009, 2nd edition 2017), and, most recently, Waste (Polity Press, due Summer 2019). She has published in WIRES Climate Change, The Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, International Studies Review, The Annual Review of Political Science, among others. She is co-chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability at UC Berkeley. Kate is also a former co-editor-in-chief of the MIT Press journal Global Environmental Politics, and she is currently chair of the Environmental Studies Section of the International Studies Association.


Prior to 2018, China was the destination for nearly half of the world’s plastic waste imports. However, in January 2018, the Chinese government instituted Operation National Sword, which set contamination standards of recyclables to a level that is currently almost impossible to meet. As a result, China stopped importing nearly all foreign recyclables, largely plastic. Prior to 2018, why was China importing so much plastic, and from whom?

China began taking plastic scrap from across the world in around 2000, a point that marked the beginning of an era of growth for China, as well as the growth of its manufacturing sectors on the coast. As a result, China had a demand for plastic, paper, and metal scrap that it could not meet on its own.

The plastic scrap came mostly from industrialized countries. The United States was a big exporter, but so were the United Kingdom and Australia. Those three countries are often cited as the ones most dependent on China for getting rid of plastics. Other countries like Germany and Japan also shipped a fair amount to China, as did many Western, industrialized nations.

China had the demand for plastics, and exporters of recyclables did not have anything they could easily do with the plastic at home, so it made sense to ship it to China. It was much cheaper to ship it to China than deal with it domestically.

These exporting countries would ship plastic waste back in containers that had imported Chinese goods, correct?

Yes, that is correct. It was a cheap and easy way to transport the plastic. 

What caused China to implement Operation National Sword in 2018? How has its implementation affected the global recycling industry?

China started cracking down on plastic scrap imports in 2013 when it was becoming clear that exporters were sending too much plastic, and the quality was getting much lower. Plastics are often contaminated or mixed with other materials, like hazardous waste or paper. Although China started to crackdown and get exporters to clean up their act, this short-term operation eventually failed. The scrap industry was expecting another crackdown from China. But Operation National Sword instead was effectively a ban. This was a big surprise.

With Operation National Sword, China was saying two things. First, it did not want to be seen as the world’s dumping ground. The phrase that was used when it announced Operation National Sword was “no more foreign garbage.” That is quite telling. It wanted to stop receiving these dirty plastics. Second, China began producing enough virgin plastic and scrap plastic of its own to feed its industry.

China is not actually modifying the use of plastics in manufacturing. However, it is potentially reshaping the informal recycling industry to be more formalized and regulated.

In your most recent book Waste, you provide a case study on China and Operation National Sword. You write that China’s move to end importing foreign recyclables is motivated by its new role as a global superpower. Could you elaborate this point?

As the United States pulls back from its role as a global leader, China has been stepping up as an economic superpower, as well as a leader in addressing climate change. China needs not only to be powerful, but also to exercise some kind of moral leadership. It is demonstrating that it has values, and that it is a leading global citizen and a leading power. Changing its image as the world’s waste dump goes along with that message, as does producing technology like solar panels, maintaining clean cities, and improving the air quality in Beijing. It is important for leading countries to show that they can lead in a demonstrative fashion, and not just through their positions of power.

So you think China’s move to drastically limit plastic importation is partially driven by a motivation to be more environmentally friendly, or at least to be perceived as such?

Yes, at least to be perceived as such. With the particular case of plastics, there is some debate about whether or not China actually aims to be more environmentally friendly. This is partially because China is swapping in its own plastic scrap, which does not help the environment. But yes, there is a mix of motives here. It is too simplistic to focus on one, whether that be political or environmental. It is also worth noting that this 2018 decision came from the politburo in Beijing, not just from local governments or actors. In other words, it came from very high up.

What were the immediate effects of Operation National Sword?

First, the global recycling industry went into shock. The stringency of China’s Operation National Sword was just not expected. The first response from the trade associations was that this move would cost tens of thousands of jobs and that it would be the end of recycling as we know it. Although the job losses turned out to be minimal, the latter is true; China’s actions have fundamentally changed the recycling industry, particularly in the United States. Most plastic and paper is now going to landfill, but there is also much more energy surrounding what America should do to cut back on plastics going into the waste stream and to innovate around new recycling technologies. Additionally, there is now increased conversation regarding ways the US can improve recycling to meet China’s standards as stipulated in Operation National Sword, and how we can build domestic markets in the United States for recycled plastic. In sum, the impacts have been both negative and positive, but there is room for more opportunities in the future.                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Following Operation National Sword, other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, began absorbing China’s share of plastic waste importation. How has this influx of waste affected these countries, both economically and environmentally?

Yes, these countries did begin taking in the plastic after Operation National Sword. It was largely Chinese companies that would direct the plastic to their operations in Southeast Asia. It shows how global economies, in this case the recycling economy, adapt very quickly.

The impact on these Southeast Asian countries has not been good. In fact, many of these countries have actually stopped, or announced they will stop, importing the West’s plastic scrap. Unlike China, they do not have the same large manufacturing sectors in which to use this plastic waste and scrap. It is unclear what is happening to all of the waste. We assume that much of it is simply being dumped into landfills or incinerated. The influx of plastic has overwhelmed these countries' recycling capacities.

In terms of the environmental effects on Southeast Asia, it depends on a couple of factors. It is very hard to separate the plastic packaging of these countries’ own consumer goods (which often come from Western brands) from the plastic waste actually shipped from overseas. But the latter certainly adds to existing waste disposal problems.                                                                                                                                                                 
It appears that many of these waste-importing countries are following in China’s footsteps — Vietnam promised to end its importation of scrap plastic by 2025, and Thailand has banned all electronic waste. If these Southeast Asian countries cease to import recyclables, how will this alter the international recycling industry?

It certainly shifts a lot of the responsibility back on the exporters of plastic to develop their own methods of recycling scrap plastic, as well as their own domestic markets for recycled materials. Some of that seems to be taking shape as the US builds facilities that will potentially recycle plastics to the point of meeting China’s restrictions. That is one option. Another option is finding other markets, as there is always another place that will take plastic. Turkey and some countries in Latin America perhaps are taking plastic waste now.

The loophole that the recycling industry found in China has closed, and other countries like India have also stopped importing plastic waste. Now, it is largely the question of how exporters of plastic deal with the issue of recycling domestically, as well as the global issue of single-use plastic products.

President Rodrigo Duterte made a dramatic move this past spring, threatening to ship back contaminated recyclables and trash Canada had mistakenly sent to the Philippines. How are exporters of waste (particularly from the West) beginning to reassess their recycling practices in light of the growing resistance in Asia to be the destination of waste generated in the developed world?

Reassessment of current practices is also being pushed at the global level. Although the Basel Convention on the trade of hazardous waste has not actually done much in the last fifteen years or so, it has added plastic to a list of wastes that require consent and proof of proper management before being shipped overseas. That is another step that is getting exporters of waste to sit up and pay attention. It has also led exporter states to rethink how they do recycling and how they may beef up recycling facilities. Additionally, new technologies are being designed. Artificial intelligence and robots can be more effective than humans at sorting recyclables. As I noted earlier, new markets for plastic waste must also be built. Ultimately, however, these exporting states must reduce the production of plastics, the use of plastics in packaging and manufacturing, and the amount of plastic going into the waste stream.

I understand that every time plastic is recycled, it degrades. What is done with plastics that have degraded beyond the point of being recyclable?

That is one of the big issues of plastic. It is not like other commodities that can be recycled a number of times. The fraction of plastics recycled one time is tiny, only ten percent. The fraction of plastic recycled twice is absolutely miniscule. It does downgrade quite quickly. At that point it gets thrown into a landfill, or incinerated, depending on the country.

Is there existing technology to address this problem?

Yes, there is chemical recycling and high level incineration hydrolysis and gasification that will actually deal with the lowest quality plastics. So there are efforts afoot to address that issue. Additionally, we have so much plastic in the ocean that if we pull it out, there really is nothing we can do with it, apart from using some of this technology or putting it into landfills. A lot of people are putting money, energy, and thought into these kinds of practices. Most of these endeavors are still at the start up level, given that they are expensive and hard to scale up. But I imagine these developments will unfold in the next two years.

What will the waste-resource recovery sector look like in another decade?

Recycling is likely to be better done. It might be outsourced, and current exporters might still be exporting scrap somewhere. Hopefully, if that is happening, it is under fair and safe labor conditions in the importing country. Additionally, there needs to be consideration of how recycled waste will be used in the importing countries, as well.

Moving up the plastics supply chain, I hope that we will have found better ways to package goods, including disposable takeout food containers that are not plastic, or at least are not the kind of plastic we use now. I do believe that will happen, as there is a lot of energy going into that right now. I did not grow up with plastic straws or with disposable plastic cups or bags. Their use is a relatively recent shift, and I believe it can be undone, as long as we maintain a resistance to the powerful interests behind keeping us using plastics.

One of these interested parties is the petrochemical industry. A lot of what will happen in the next ten years will also depend on the price of oil. With the shale gas boom, the price of oil is really low right now. Because recycled and recovering plastic from scrap plastic is much more expensive than producing virgin plastic, the petrochemical industry keeps manufacturing virgin plastic out of fossil fuels. That has been a powerful countermeasure to using recycled plastics.

It is also a matter of keeping pressure on the big users of plastic bottles and packaging like Coca Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, and maybe even Amazon and getting them to change their ways for reasons other than cost. This has been done before, with pressure successfully applied to corporations around labor practices, human rights, and aspects of sustainability, like sustainable timber. It is possible this can be done; it is a battle that is not over yet.

I am hoping that in America there will be legislative movements, certainly at the State of California level and in other states, beyond what is going on in our cities. Maybe we will even see legislation at the federal level, depending on the next administration. But at the moment, plastic production is not going down. It is going up.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

People need to keep paying attention, both to how they recycle at the individual level but also about their role in their cities and jurisdictions. This includes lobbying for certain policies, like plastic restrictions or legislation against plastic shopping bags.

Additionally, keeping the issue of ocean plastics on the front burner is crucial. A lot of policy to address this issue has to come from Southeast Asia, as that is where much of this plastic is coming from. That is going to be a challenge for the waste industry, the recycling industry, and those responsible. Maybe the World Bank and other development agencies could help build these facilities around the world.

We are also going to see a lot of urban migration and rises in consumption in Asia and Africa. Unless more waste management facilities are built here, these trends will lead to amounts of plastic that will dramatically overwhelm landfills, incinerators, and the oceans globally, regardless of what we do in the United States and Europe.                                                  


Genevieve Collins CMC '22Student Journalist

Featured Image by Enming Yan / 闫恩铭, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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