China’s ban on single-use plastics won’t work

China has jumped aboard the “ban” wagon—big time. The country announced last week that it will start phasing out single-use plastics (SUPs) this year, beginning with the elimination of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam takeout boxes, plastic swabs and products such as cosmetics containing microbeads. Caterers will be prohibited from using plastic straws; in certain major urban areas, plastic bags and tableware also will be banned. By the end of 2020, China will be a non-plastic wasteland.

Chinese jogger drinking water in front of Shangahi skyline

What will take the place of all the SUPs that China’s nearly 1.5 billion people use in their everyday lives? The ban China is proposing is happening quickly—maybe too quickly—and perhaps without enough time to replace the billions of EPS foam takeout containers and plastic bags that serve people quite well, providing convenient and economical packaging.

The ban also will have an impact on the U.S. plastics industry value chain, according to Perc Pineda, PhD, Chief Economist at the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC). “For example, by the end of 2020, China will phase out production of foam takeout boxes. As of November 2019, the U.S. had a $10.1-million trade surplus in expanded polystyrene with China. This ban now puts that trade surplus at risk,” Pineda told PlasticsToday.

The ban of plastic bags and tableware in key cities—expanding to more areas by 2022—will also impact U.S. trade in plastic products, said Pineda. “In 2018, we had a $16.1-billion trade deficit with China on plastics products, a category that includes “single-use” plastics. Based on our [PLASTICS] estimates, in 2018 the United States imported about $4.7 billion of single-use plastics from China,” said Pineda, or three times what we export in plastics products to China. It goes to follow that a reduction in single-use plastics demand in China will reduce U.S. exports to this market. “If, in fact, ‘single-use’ plastics production will also be phased out in China, we could see trade diversion—meaning imports from other countries into the United States—increase. Alternately, U.S. domestic production will need to increase to meet demand,” Pineda added.

China is the world’s largest import market for plastic in the world, particularly polyethylene used in plastic bags, Joseph Chang, global editor for the chemicals business at market intelligence firm ICIS, told Adele Peters in an article published in Fast Company. “The highest volume plastic in the world is polyethylene plastic, and [China is] the major importer of this,” said Chang. Much of that plastic comes from the United States, where cheap shale gas is used to produce ethylene and plastic pellets that are shipped abroad. In 2018, China imported 6.7 million metric tons of high-density polyethylene (and produced another 7.2 million tons locally), writes Peters.

A misguided policy

So, how does this ban benefit China? Several studies show that SUP alternatives are worse for the environment. From the raw materials to manufacturing to shipping, plastics are by far the most eco-friendly material. Plastic is made from a naturally occurring raw material in the earth (natural gas and oil) that is plentiful and easily obtained. Polymer manufacturing is energy efficient, as is plastic processing.

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