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Understanding the Implications of China’s Recent Single-Use Plastic Ban

By John Richardson

February 10, 2020

 

For around two years now, China has been taking its plastic waste crisis very seriously.

 

The announcement from China on January 20 regarding the bans on non-degradable plastic shopping bags and plastic straws is part of a three-stage five-year plan to ban or restrict production, sales and use of disposable plastic products.

 

It is a very reasonable scenario that China will lead the world in banning single-use plastics that have no real societal value, whilst also creating a modern, state-of-the-art recycling industry that competes with the very best in the world.

 

 

Currently, China is set to ban or restrict production, sales and use of disposable plastic products via three stages in the next five years, according to an instruction jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

 

The policy explicitly prohibits the production and sale of products including ultra-thin plastic bags with a thickness of less than 0.025 mm and polyethylene agricultural mulch with a thickness of less than 0.01 mm.

 

The ban also states the following details regarding the future of China’s restrictions on single-use plastics:

  • Production and sale of disposable plastic. By the end of 2020, the production and sale of disposable foam plastic tableware, disposable plastic cotton swabs, and the production of daily chemical products containing plastic microbeads will be phased out.
  • Non-degradable plastic bags. By the end of 2020, non-degradable plastic bags will be forbidden in key cities, and the scope of implementation will be gradually expanded in 2022 and 2025.
  • Disposable plastic tableware. At the end of 2020, disposable plastic straws will be banned in the catering industry across the country, disposable plastic tableware banned in key cities, and the scope of implementation will be further expanded in 2022.
  • Consumption of disposable plastic tableware. By 2025, the consumption of disposable plastic tableware in the catering and takeout area of ​​cities above the prefecture level will be reduced by 30%.
  • Disposable plastic items for hotels. By the end of 2022, star-rated hotels nationwide should no longer actively provide disposable plastic supplies. By the end of 2025, all hotels and home-stay businesses will have to follow.
  • Express plastic packaging: By the end of 2022, key provinces and cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and others, will be prohibited from using disposable plastic packaging bags and woven bags for express delivery, and the amount of plastic tape should be reduced. By the end of 2025, nationwide express delivery outlets will follow.

 

It all started with the heavy restrictions that China introduced in January 2018 on imports of mixed, highly polluted scrap plastic. China had become the dumping ground for plastic waste from the West, so introducing restrictions helped to better protect the health of recycling workers in the country. These restrictions were the first major sign that China, as part of wider environmental commitment, was taking the plastics-waste issue seriously.

 

Subsequently, conversations with senior petrochemical industry executives with connections to the Chinese government suggested that China wanted to go further by tackling the much bigger problem of local plastic waste. The problem is that plastic waste is adding to China’s shortage of potable water, as of course lots of the plastic waste is ending up in rivers, contaminating the water supply.

 

It therefore seemed likely that bans of single-use plastic would be introduced, so there was no real surprise when the bans were announced.

 

In parallel, there are reports that China is to modernize its plastics recycling business as a means of reducing dependence on imported virgin resins and adding value to China’s economy. The current local recycling industry is, on the whole, highly disorganized and inefficient.

 

 

China polymers or plastics demand by volume is the largest in the world, and its growth in demand is also the largest. China is the biggest polymer import market in the world, especially for polyethylene, and around half of the demand for polyethylene is in single-use plastics. For this reason, whatever happens in China is a big deal for the global polymers business, and thus has wider repercussions for other markets that are invested in the polymers industry.

 

By John Richardson, Senior Consultant Asia, ICIS