In China, some of the largest recycling yards in the world now lie dormant because they are no longer being fed by millions of tons of waste from the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States.
On Jan 1, China stopped accepting imports of most foreign scrap plastic and paper due to environmental concerns, and in an effort to boost the domestic recovery of such materials.
The ban on foreign garbage has led to plastic and paper waste piling up in nations throughout the world, and, in China, recyclers are feeling the pinch as they struggle to source materials to process.
In the first round of import quotas issued in January 2017, the Chinese government authorized 3.8 million tons of plastic of scrap plastic to be shipped into the country. This month, the government approved imports of only 9,335 tons of plastic.
"If this approval rate is continued for the subsequent import permit approvals, the major recycling operations in China, which used to rely on imports, would be forced to switch to sourcing from domestic supply,"said Steve Wong, president of the China Scrap Plastic Association. "The common view of the industry is that there will be no reversal of China's solid waste imports policies beginning in 2018."
Wong said the ban has caused a supply gap of about 5 million tons of plastic scrap. The long-term plan is for domestic supply to make up some of this, with policies for recycling and collection in China coming into effect.
"China's own domestic waste production is increasing," said Meadhbh Bolger, resource manager for Friends of the Earth Europe. "There's lots to develop in their own sectors. They have enough issues with their own domestic waste and increasing that capacity instead of dealing with our European exports as well."
Many industries in China have low rates of collection of recyclable material. Only a quarter of the plastic recycled in the country is domestically sourced, and the government is keen to develop its material recovery industry.
In the interim, many Chinese operators are looking elsewhere for business.
"Some Chinese recyclers are shutting down and some of them have upped and moved their whole operations to Malaysia and Vietnam," Bolger said.
The recycling markets in Southeast Asia and India have expanded rapidly, said Wong, though he doubts they will be able to meet all of the demand, leaving exporting nations no choice but to stockpile much of their scrap or process it themselves.
"Many exporting countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Japan, are not yet capable of handling the increased volume," Wong said. "Low-end plastic items still have no alternative outlet other than landfills and incineration in exporting countries."