For a worker in Chinese cities such as Beijing or Shenzhen, there’s a good chance that lunch at the office now involves delivery through an app—and a pile of plastic trash. In 2018, food delivery apps in China made more than 10 billion deliveries throughout the country, nearly doubling the number from the previous year. The corresponding deluge of plastic takeout containers, chopsticks, and bags is one of the reasons that the Chinese government just passed an ambitious new ban on single-use plastic.
Environmentalists say that it’s a major step. But it might not necessarily work as intended: If it results in just shifting to compostable plastic, without a massive investment in composting technology and infrastructure, it will still create massive trash problems. Real change requires a culture shift, not just different materials.
“It’s encouraging to see the state, for the first time ever, identify single-use plastics as a problem and the core of China’s plastic pollution crisis,” says Yuan Chang, a Beijing-based plastics campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia. “We think this time Beijing is serious. The only thing is we’re not sure how they’re going to make this whole huge plan happen—and we’re worried maybe they’ll simply switch . . . from one type of single-use plastic to another.”
The ban will roll out in several phases. By the end of 2020, the country will phase out production of foam takeout boxes, plastic swabs, and products with plastic microbeads. Caterers will have to stop using plastic straws. In key cities, plastic bags and tableware will also be banned by the end of the year, and the ban will expand to more areas by 2022. By that year, delivery services in some cities will have to stop using plastic packaging, and the ban will then extend to other areas by 2025.
The ban applies to “nondegradable” plastic bags, tableware, and other plastic packaging, and it talks about encouraging the use of biodegradable plastic for some products. That might not sound like a bad thing. But compostable plastic only breaks down successfully in industrial composting facilities. “In China, there are few facilities to do this,” Chang says. “We’re worrying that maybe China’s going to be flooded with single-use biodegradable plastic all over the place in the next few years.” Huge food delivery companies, such as Meituan Dianping and Ele.me, could decide to pay for biodegradable plastic forks and boxes rather than trying to shift customers to a potentially less convenient system of reusables. The same could happen with online shopping companies, another major source of plastic waste.
The new ban also talks about improving recycling infrastructure in China, and encouraging the use of alternatives such as cloth bags. But including biodegradable plastic as an option in its new ban may be a mistake. A fork made from PLA, one common biodegradable plastic, won’t break down if it ends up in the ocean. “We think it delivers a blurry message to the public—that biodegradable plastic can solve the problem, and you can just keep using single-use plastic and throw it away,” Chang says. The ultimate solution, he says, is moving from a throwaway culture to a reusable one.
China already struggles with recycling. The e-commerce sector, Chang says, generates around 850,000 metric tons of plastic waste a year, and 95% is not recycled. One study estimated that in 2017, online food delivery generated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste, including 44,000 tons of plastic spoons, 175,000 tons of plastic chopsticks, and 1.2 million tons of plastic takeout boxes. (That was nine times more waste than the industry generated just two years earlier; now, since food delivery has grown even more, the amount of waste has probably more than doubled again.) Overall, the country recycles around 22% of its post-consumer plastic. That’s more than the U.S. recycles, but it still means that most plastic is going to landfills that are often inadequately managed, so scraps of plastic can escape into the environment.
Even if it has challenges, China’s ban is likely to have some impact on the demand for the fossil fuels that are used in plastic production. The country is now the world’s largest import market for plastic in the world, particularly polyethylene used in plastic bags. “The highest volume plastic in the world is polyethylene plastic, and they’re the major importer of this,” says Joseph Chang, global editor for the chemicals business at ICIS, an industry publication. Much of that plastic comes from the U.S., 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). As oil companies ramp up production of plastic, China’s drop in demand may be a signal—along with single-use plastic bans in the European Union and elsewhere—that the industry should be thinking about alternatives.