It is not a secret that plastic pollution has posed a steep challenge for decades. In recent years, a plastic crisis was increasingly prompted by a surge in demand for plastic consumer staples driven by e-commerce and food delivery services. China has unleashed a robust kick against plastic waste – but some problems persist.
Ten years ago, China was home to a quarter of all plastic waste that was dumped out in the open. For over 40 years, China imported plastic waste from the world, accounting for 8.88 million tons annually.
A critical turning point happened in 2017 when China announced a plan to phase out solid waste imports from foreign countries. Subsequently, the country implemented a full ban on January 1, 2021; any parties who breach the Solid Waste Law are held liable for a penalty of CNY 10,000 to CNY 100,000 (USD 1,545 to USD 15,460).
The proliferation of plastics made from fossil fuels leads to environmental pollution and chemical toxicity. Global environmental advocates decry the urge of diminishing plastic leakage when our ocean is awash in plastic waste and seeping into our daily consumptions, such as food supply and drinking water.
E-Commerce and Food Delivery Exacerbate China's Plastic Crisis
In the past, the common use of styrene plastic bags stirred up 'white pollution' in China. Reuters reported that the country had an average of 24 kilograms of floating trash per 1,000 square feet of surface water in 2018, 88.7% of which was plastic.
To combat the ever-pressing plastic crisis, China released a 14th Five-Year Plan, covering the year 2021 to 2025, to tackle plastic waste management and encourage industries to use degradable plastic products.
On August 28, 2020, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce outlined a set of enforced restrictions on the use of plastic products within the country. It requires that commodity retails, e-commerce platforms, and food delivery businesses are abided by state regulations of reporting disposable plastic products and recycling.
Going through a long-term learning curve, China has recognized a 'panorama perspective': that there is no silver bullet to solve the plastic crisis. In a retrospective manner, the country crafted another solution to bring about a degradable-plastic economy through state regulations.
Referring to the chart below, the ministry also included specifications of banning non-degradable sing-use tableware for dine-in settings by the end of 2020 and single-use plastic products in the hospitality industry by the end of 2022. By the end of 2025, the country is expected to eliminate non-degradable plastic bags in most commerce applications.
Moreover, the booming e-commerce and food delivery industries have put the plastic crisis under the spotlight. According to Greenpeace East Asia, China's e-commerce industry is on track to generate approximately 5 million tons of biodegradable plastic waste per year by 2025. From 2005 to 2020, China's e-commerce transaction share has expanded from 1% to more than 40% of the world's total and outpaced many developed countries, including the US, Germany, France, Japan, and the UK.
"In recent years, plastic pollution is more about packaging related to e-commerce and food delivery services," said Ma Jun, the director at one of China's most dynamic environmental NGOs known as the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).
Riding on the e-commerce and food delivery trends, last year, China's growth rate of plastic packaging increased from 2.3% in 2020 to 4.4% in 2021. Among the different states, Zhejiang produced the most plastic products of 12.8 million metric tons, followed by the Guangdong province with a 12.5 million metric tons of production volume.
Biodegradable Plastics: Yes or No?
There is a hot debate regarding the effectiveness of biodegradable plastics in ending plastic waste. Unlike traditional styrene plastic, biodegradable plastics were invented as alternatives to alleviate the plastic crisis in China. On the other hand, many biodegradable plastics require specific conditions to break down, such as temperature and humidity, which require specialized composting facilities.
Ma said that "Biodegradable plastics may sound ideal. But in reality, we still face challenges that these products need special conditions to degrade. Unfortunately, in many scenarios, it is not easy to fully meet these conditions."
As the director of the Wilson Center's China Environment Forum for nearly two decades, Jennifer Turner is an expert on US-China environmental cooperation and governance issues. She said that "China does not have a sufficient collection of composite facilities and has no regulation for sustainable feedstock sourcing or safe manufacturing for plastic products yet."
In a January webinar of the Wilson Center, Von Hernandez, global coordinator of Break Free From Plastic Moment, stated that top global corporations, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and Nestlé, are plastic waste culprits because they do not offer fully effective solutions for recycling. In fact, less than 10 percent of plastics ever produced have been recycled.
Plastic Free China is China's first organization devoted to ending plastic waste. The CEO and co-founder Xue Zheng indicated that the country's 14th Five-Year Plan has encouraged degradable materials used in daily consumption. However, the country still lacks efficient waste disposal terminals to complete the degradation of all used plastics.
"On par with national policy, the Chinese e-commerce industries will launch around 1,000 reusable plastic delivery packages in the future. This is a positive alternative to replace biodegradable plastics in ending plastic waste," said Zheng.
Closing the Loop
Closing the loop in the plastic industry is an imminent solution that solves the plastic crisis. It is often accompanied by nebulous processes that unmask the public from overly positive presumptions. Currently, there are primary three ways in plastic waste management – landfilled, recycled, or incinerated. Either way will generate greenhouse gas emissions and escalate global warming.
"To deal with the problem of plastic pollution, we need to build a closed-loop mechanism. There is no single action that can easily end plastic waste. It requires stakeholders, the government, and consumers to all participate in this mechanism," said Ma.
Around the world, the plastic recycling system integrates with the logistics of collecting and sorting plastic wastes, a process named the Plastic First Mile. It stands for the process of transporting generated waste to facilities that can dispose of them safely in avoidance of second-time pollution. To complete a closed-loop mechanism, it also requires the Plastic Last Mile, standing for the logistics system to offer sustainable supplies in company operations.
"Many Chinese brands have made a commitment to reducing plastic footprints. But it is very hard for any company to deliver this goal by itself. What's happening in China has created major potentials and generated real hope on its way to building the world's largest garbage sorting and recycling program," said Ma.
With China's 14th Five-Year Plan, it is expected to install a garbage sorting mechanism in all major cities to reduce plastic packaging wastes by creating a recycling system. Ending plastic wastes should be synergized with China's quest for zero-carbon. The Institution of Public Affairs and Environment has launched a Blue Map app, a database tracking the environmental performance of 10 million company brands worldwide.
"In our index assessment last year, we have been tracking the performance of over 660 brands on their environmental performance, which does not only limit to their compliance to environmental law or regulations. It also includes their behaviors on garbage emission, waste disposal, and recycling," said Ma.
Leading e-commerce companies, such as Alibaba, have recognized the urging need of solving the plastic crisis in China. In 2021, Alibaba partnered with Unilever to launch an AI-powered closed-loop recycling system in response to the Waste-Free World initiative.
But there is a large part missing from closing the loop. Turner indicated that the upstream solutions, including the design of plastics and companies, have not yet been regulated in China.
"The first step that everyone does, including China, began with downstream solutions. But you could not solve this issue by regulating the upstream," said Turner.
Despite some encouraging guidelines for inventing biodegradable new plastic materials, plastic manufacturers are not mandatory to use recycled content.
Market Opportunity & Enhanced Producer Responsibility
While the upstream solutions are pivotal to battle the plastic crisis, there are two aspects needing improvement – market opportunity and enhanced producer responsibility. For decades, plastic waste was seen as a responsibility of consumers as a false claim.
On the contrary, state policies that require plastic producers to carry the main responsibility are more effective in enhancing the upstream solutions. Enhanced Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a legislation that requires different activities of companies, from labeling, composting, collecting plastic products, and even creating a subsystem for recycling plastic waste.
"There is a big global push. NGOs, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Well Life Foundation, and even the European Union have been putting pressure on industries. They lead the world in Enhanced Producer Responsibility (EPR)," said Turner.
For Chinese e-commerce brands, they are classified as two primary types in terms of business operations: self-ran businesses or third-party sellers. In this case, self-ran e-commerce companies normally have their own logistics to deliver goods and supplies.
"For these e-commerce brands, they should have set rules in using recyclable plastic products and take the responsibility of reducing over-packaging. They also should have an open policy to let the consumers supervise," said Zheng.
Chinese companies, along with the rest of the global leaders, are rambling on this global trend of regulating plastics as the EU is the gold standard and attempting to earn a market position ahead of the others. In addition, EPR and state policies can transpose tremendous market opportunities.
"If the company does not require to use recycled plastic, there is no market. That's why the recycling industry is not as successful as it could have been," said Turner.
Taking an example, Sichuan Push Acetati is a sustainable technology company and leader of the cellulose acetate industry of China. Guanghui Xiang, the general manager assistant of the company, indicated that the company's primary product, cellulose acetate compound, can be used in the plastic industry as a sustainable solution sourcing from nature.
Compared to the well-known degradable polylactic acid (PLA) plastic, cellulose acetate is a biomass material derived from wood fibers and cotton and is more easily degradable but with a higher cost. This material is often used in plastic commerce applications, such as plastic eyeglass frames, single-use plastic straws, and plastic food packaging.
"In these two years, China’s biodegradable plastics market has proved very popular. Our company has many exhibitions each year, but this type of material is less-recognized than PLA in China," said Xiang, "So far, western companies in Europe and the U.S. are the leaders in using this new degradable material."
Xiang explained that the most effective way to advocate the use of this new material is through China's state policy to increase market opportunities for companies doing similar innovations in green technology.
"I think that China's advantage in progressing to the next step of the plastic-free environment is related to our resourceful industries. Also, the country has placed a large focus on sustainability to end plastic waste in recent years. By replicating practices of global pioneers in this field, I believe that we will have better development in the future," said Xiang.
In a Nutshell
The booming e-commerce and food delivery market have granted considerable market opportunities for Chinese brands in recent decades, but with a burdening cost of ever-increasing plastic wastes. For several decades, plastic pollution in China has been exacerbated and grabbed the attention of the Chinese government to release encouraging state guidelines to regulate industries. Biodegradable plastics are invented to alleviate the plastic crisis while they are not a panacea to completely eliminate plastic pollution. The key to success relies upon the closed-loop mechanism of facilitating the proper plastic collection, sorting, and recycling processes through state regulations and enhanced producer responsibility. Riding on the renewable sector, China has a great potential of expanding the plastic recycling business to accomplish a real green transformation in industries.