FT Rethink: The west's new recycling challenge

The world has produced over 6bn tonnes of plastic waste since the 1950s, more than half of it in the last 16 years. In this video from FT Rethink, journalist Leslie Hook explains the western world’s dire recycling situation.

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Video transcript:

China's refusal to become the West’s dumping ground is forcing the world to rethink its 200 billion dollar recycling industry. 

On December 31st 2017 the recycling giant shut its doors to imports of recyclables citing environmental concerns. Plastic scrap prices collapsed as did the price of low-grade paper. 

In the first half of 2017 China and Hong Kong took 60% of the plastic waste exported by G7 countries. That dropped to less than 10% in 2018. Much of that plastic scrap has flowed to Southeast Asia with Malaysia becoming the biggest importer. Vietnam doubled its imports of plastic scrap in a year, while Thailand's rose 14 fold. 

But Southeast Asian governments have been trying to curb the amounts of waste they take in. Vietnam stopped issuing licenses for imports of scrap paper, plastic and metal. Malaysia has also been fighting a string of illegal recycling factories. 

Meanwhile, Norway recently introduced a proposal that would regulate the international trade of certain types of plastic waste under the Basel convention created in 1989 to govern the handling of hazardous wastes. The proposal has already gathered support from more than 20 countries, although many scrap traders oppose the move arguing it would stifle trade and discourage recycling. 

Another consequence of China's stance is a wave of new investment in scrap processing facilities in Europe and elsewhere in the developed world. For companies that make the necessary machines, sales are booming and order books have developed a backlog. 

The world has produced over 6 billion tonnes of plastic waste since the 1950s – more than half of it in the last 16 years. Finding alternative ways to deal with it has suddenly become an enormous challenge.