Almost half the world's plastic waste was sent to China until a ban on most imports was imposed last year. Now developed economies are facing mounting pressures to act as plastic waste piles up in landfills and processing costs rise.

Plastic-waste producing countries are seeking to export elsewhere, but despite rapid increases in waste imports by Turkey and other South Asian economies, the gap left in the market by China has yet not been filled.

And these countries are now also banning plastic waste imports – some with immediate effect. Developed economies such as the US, UK and Australia thus need to find domestic solutions.

China's imports of plastic waste were worth USD3.7bn in 2016 but from the start of 2018 incoming shipments of four categories of waste, covering 24 types including plastic, have been banned. Besides environmental concerns, this has given China the opportunity to bring structure to its own domestic waste-processing sector.

The result was a 99.3 per cent collapse in plastic-waste imports to China between 2016 and 2018, causing a fall in overseas shipments by all the top-10 exporting countries apart from Belgium. The US, still the biggest exporter, saw deliveries fall 36 per cent in a year, demonstrating the scale of the issue now faced domestically by waste-exporting economies.

China's neighbours have been increasingly accepting plastic waste, allowing a quick and partial fix for many developed economies. Exports to Thailand, for instance, grew almost tenfold between 2015 and 2018 while Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Turkey each imported more than 210,000 tonnes last year with imports more than trebling since 2015.

But this relief for exporters may be only temporary as these countries start to introduce bans similar to China's. Besides health and environmental concerns, many countries lack the infrastructure and processing capacity to accommodate this sudden influx of imports.

In Malaysia, there have been reports of illegal plastic factories and illicit plastic incineration generating air pollution while large plastic-waste patches have formed in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam with chemicals seeping into groundwater, contaminating clean water sources.

There is no obvious solution for waste-exporting economies. Landfill may be the cheapest option but countries face capacity constraints as well as environmental issues such as chemical leakage. Waste-to-energy processes can generate power but also risk carbon emissions, air pollution and toxic fly ash.

Recycling high-quality plastic waste reduces demand for virgin plastic production. Longer term, this can emerge as a solution, but at present, recycling infrastructure across much of the world requires significant investment to make a large difference to levels of plastic pollution.

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