The government’s plan to tackle internal and imported plastic waste is the latest phase in China’s clean energy commitment.

Although China’s ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions and air pollution have received global attention and coverage, the country’s significant steps to reduce solid waste pollution have been subject to less scrutiny. Plastics, which are both manufactured and imported into China for recycling in vast quantities, are a case point. The National Development and Reform Commissions (NDRC), China’s key economic planning body, has frequently affirmed its commitment to reducing plastic waste pollution. To further this objective, the NDRC is expected to revise a 2008 order, which banned the production and sale of plastic bags less than 0.025 millimetres thick. The order also made it compulsory for retailers to charge customers for plastic bags.

The ban succeeded to some extent by reducing the tonnage of plastic bags from one million to 700,000 from 2007 to 2015.[1] However, China now faces a new problem in its rapidly expanding delivery and takeaway food industry, which has capitalized on the rapid adoption of mobile ordering and payment for food using apps like WeChat. The industry serves nearly 20 million online food delivery orders every day, consuming over 60 million plastic cartons in the process.[2] Food delivery accounted for the consumption of 14.7 billion plastic bags in China in 2017.[3]

The government has also begun to restrict the importation of recyclable materials into China, as an additional tool to fight plastic pollution. On January 1, 2018, a ban on the importation of 24 kinds of solid materials — including low-grade polyethylene terephthalate used in plastic bottles — was introduced. Until this year, China had been the largest global importer of recyclable material, accounting for over half of the world’s imports of waste paper, metals, and scrap plastic. In 2016, China imported 1.42 million tons of plastic from the United States alone. Although other Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and India will accept some of the materials that China has now banned, they will not be able to match China’s processing capacity for some time. Cities around the world, some of which sent the majority of their recycling materials to China, are struggling to adapt, and may have to consider alternative strategies such as burning plastic.

Latham will continue to monitor China’s progress in reducing its plastic consumption and pollution.

This blog was prepared with the assistance of Olivia Featherstone in the London office of Latham & Watkins.