China's plastic ban: Exports to other parts of Asia soar

12:31 pm on 5 April 2018

China's ban on importing plastic has caused the amount of waste New Zealand sends to other parts of Asia to skyrocket.

Plastic rubbish at sea.

Plastic rubbish at sea. Photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Cesar Harada

China stopped accepting 24 different types of waste, including plastic and paper, at the start of this year because it said contaminants were polluting its environment.

In the first three months of 2017 New Zealand exported $1.7 million dollars worth of plastic to China - during the same period this year that dropped to $100,000.

But other countries are willing to take the rubbish that China won't - New Zealand's exports to Malaysia so far this year are up 500 percent on the same time last year, from $56,000 to $345,000.

Exports to Indonesia are also up, jumping 150 percent from $320,000 to $812,000.

Thailand's imports from New Zealand have doubled, from $269,000 to 549,000 and Vietnam's are up 75 percent, from $43,000 to $75,000.

China previously took more than half of the world's waste exports and plastic prices have plummeted since the ban came into effect.

While some businesses are willing to sell at the lower price, one of New Zealand's largest waste companies is stockpiling while it waits for the market to improve.

Smart Environmental managing director Grahame Christian said it had around 1000 tonnes of plastic stored at warehouses around the country.

"We are sitting on a massive amount of paper and plastics, we are aware of new markets opening up but they are not mature, to our knowledge, so right now we've got the double whammy of very low prices and very high levels of stock."

Mr Christian's company deals with waste from 14 councils, representing around 20 percent of the country's plastic.

He said New Zealand's plastic exports were of a very high standard and it was contaminated products from other countries that were causing problems in China

"I would still think that provided the product meets the quality standard, that China will open back up," he said.

WasteMINZ chief executive Paul Evans said Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam were expected to pick up the lion's share of imports when China's ban came into effect, but there were concerns about the processes in those countries.

"Some of those countries don't have the greatest track records when it comes to environmental protections and particularly when compared to somewhere like New Zealand.

"We need to ensure that when we are sending materials overseas that they are being processed in an appropriate way," he said.

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said more money for the Waste Minimisation Fund, which could fund onshore processing, could be boosted if levies to landfills were expanded.

But she said the government had ruled out any new taxes in this term - including a plastic tax.

"However, that's why the fund needs to be increased to assist progressive companies.

"And that whole notion that we take from nature and we throw-away, that's got to change, so that we take, we use and reuse and reuse," she said.

Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Camden Howitt said recycling was not the answer in dealing with New Zealand's waste.

"It does seem a bit crazy to import materials from the other side of the world, bring them here, use them once and send them round the other side of the world just to recycle them into something else," he said.

Mr Howitt said it was an example of transferring one environmental problem to another, in a different location and the solution needed to focus on not creating the waste in the first place.

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