In 2018, China enacted its "National Sword" policy, effectively banning the import of most waste plastics and materials heading for the nation's recycling processors in an attempt to stop the wave of soiled and contaminated materials that were overwhelming the country's processing facilities and threatening it with a major environmental problem.
The policy sent the recycling world into chaos - until then, China had been the destination for most of the world's recyclable waste. Much of the waste that would have been sent to China was sent to countries in Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, although these countries are now facing the same challenges that China faced and are now closing their doors.
Decades of reliance on China in the USA and Europe stifled development of domestic markets and infrastructure. This means there are now few easy or cost-effective opportunities for dealing with recyclable waste. This has hit small and rural recycling operations the hardest, with many shutting down across the world. Left with no market for their waste, many recycling centers are facing closure, leading to more recyclable waste ending up in landfills or incinerators.
However, the recycling crisis triggered by the National Sword policy could be a catalyst for change. Facing a growing mountain of trash, the West may be forced to invest in their long-underfunded domestic recycling schemes. Improved technology, such as advanced sensor-based sorting techniques, could help reduce contamination in recyclable plastics, improving functionality and reducing the price of recycled plastics, allowing them to be used for more applications in more markets.
Long overlooked recycling technologies, such as plastic pyrolysis and catalytic depolymerization could help further strengthen end-of-life options for plastic waste. These techniques allow plastic waste to be turned back into raw materials, such as oil that can be burned for fuel or chemical feedstocks to make new plastics. An increased impetus to improve plastic recycling could lead to these technologies and the companies that develop them receiving some much-needed funding to help accelerate progress.
This is a pivotal time for plastic recycling and the National Sword policy could be the thing that finally kickstarts the industry.