This is the worst hiking ever. I’m standing on a mountain of this–
plastic waste from all over the world. Plastic packaging for frozen vegetables from Germany. Nesquik from Spain. Sunflower seeds made in USA. Cat food from the UK. This stuff has found its way here, to an
illegal dumping site in Malaysia. And it’s all Because China. We’re traveling around the world to find out how China is reshaping…basically everything. This week, recycling. I’m Nikhil Sonnad with Quartz. This is Because China. Subscribe to our channel for more of our videos. If you live in a rich country, the stuff you recycle doesn’t usually get processed at home. Instead, it’s sent abroad. For decades, that meant China. Yifei Li studies China’s environmental policies. He says China bought the world’s plastic because it was a good investment. – When China rose as the world’s factory, a lot of the products came to be made in China and then shipped to different parts of the world. But when these ships come back to China,
many of the containers were actually empty. Chinese entrepreneurs filled that empty space with plastic scrap. Manufacturers needed plastic for all the “made in China” stuff that fueled the country’s growth. They could make it from scratch, but it was cheaper to make pellets using waste from the US, Europe, and Japan. In exchange, rich countries got Chinese products even cheaper and they didn’t have to think too hard about where their recycling was ending up. Over the past two decades, 170 million metric tons of the world’s plastic waste, or more than 500 Empire State buildings, found its way to China or Hong Kong. That’s nearly three-quarters of global exports for that time period, $80 billion worth. – In many cases, it was just an opportunity emerged and people wanted to make a living. It was good business, particularly for rural China, where villagers took advantage
of lax environmental standards to set up makeshift recycling workshops
in their backyards. But informal recycling like that can be dirty and dangerous. – Residents in these villages have a disproportionately high rate of cancer. The people in these areas have been exposed to toxins for a fairly long time because of the burning of plastic products. The spread of cancer villages was just one factor that led China to question its role
in the global recycling trade. China also wanted to start recycling all of the plastic waste it was producing at home. And there was a feeling that the country had become a “dumping ground” for the world’s waste. It was bad for China’s image. – If China is a rising power, why is this country still taking garbage from other countries? Then, in 2017 China upended the industry– it decided to ban almost all plastic waste from entering the country. – The ban has been incredibly disruptive. Adam Minter is a journalist who has spent years reporting on China and the global trash industry. He says the ban forced Chinese recyclers to relocate. – People needed to find new places where they could process this material, and there was a scramble. And one of the places they went to, of course, is Southeast Asia. One year later, it was ending up in Vietnam, Thailand, and, most of all, Malaysia. Malaysia was ideal for Chinese recyclers. It’s close to China, the two countries already trade a lot, and there are large communities of Mandarin-speaking, ethnic Chinese communities here. So hundreds of Chinese operators began setting up shop, often illegally, to recycle plastic and sell it back home, where
there was still huge demand for pellets. – All of a sudden, the Malaysian port authorities were kind of overwhelmed. They said, “Wait a second, you know,
we’re used to taking plastics.” “But we aren’t used to taking this volume of plastics.” Instead of the clean industrial waste
Malaysia was used to recycling, these operators were dealing with stuff from households, which is dirty, hard to sort, and often not recyclable at all. The government started to crack down. This mountain used to be much taller, before officials shut down several illegal operators in the area. But we drove to another site three hours away and found that the operators were simply moving plastic waste to other parts of the country. – We found a big fire inside this factory. Pua Lay Peng is a resident of Jenjarom, a town about 35 miles outside Kuala Lumpur. She’s part of a local activist group fighting to stop the illegal dumping and burning of plastic waste in their community. – Have you seen an increase since China released its ban of plastics in 2017? – Yes, yes, yes. It increased a lot,
especially in my community. We found up to 40 plus illegal factories surrounding us. – All this black stuff behind me is plastic
that’s been burnt illegally. It comes here, and it’s dirty, and it’s hard to sort, and so the easiest way to get rid of it is to burn it. But that’s extremely harmful to the environment and to the people who live in this community. Ngoo Kwi Hong lives near the burning site
and several other illegal dumps. When she went to the doctor, Ngoo was hospitalized with acute bronchitis. Her doctor said pollution could be harming her recovery. The pollution, Ngoo says, is also affecting the fruit trees outside her home. China’s ban has pushed plastic waste– and the dangers that come with it– onto its neighbors. The health and environmental issues
that led China to ban plastic are already playing out across Southeast Asia. Thailand and Vietnam have already
passed their own bans. The Malaysian government did the same last year, though smuggling is still a major problem. China’s ban has disrupted the global recycling system. It’s also revealed the extent to which
the system is broken. – The whole industry was like,
“Oh my God, what do we do now?” Sunil Bagaria is president of one of the largest companies in the US that deals with plastic scrap. – Before China announced their ban,
we were collecting from the suppliers and bringing that scrap to our warehouses
and then shipping it to China. With China off the table, Sunil’s scrap
had nowhere to go. For a while, he sold it to operators in India and Southeast Asia, but, one by one, those markets closed, too. – Certainly it proved to be a blessing in disguise for the recycling industry in the USA. So he decided to recycle the plastic himself, hiring staff to do the manual labor of sorting, and buying new equipment– from China, of course. His final product is the same plastic pellets
that China used to produce. And these have brought China back into the picture. – So we are setting up to make pellets. When we visited Sunil, a delegation of Chinese recyclers was touring his facility and inspecting his output. One of these visitors was Zhang Haiqing, general manager of a recycling technology company based in Southeast China. – What do you hope to get out of
this visit to the United States? For decades, China was a black hole
for the world’s plastic. Rich countries sold their scrap
and didn’t think about what happened to it. Now, in countries like the US, recyclable plastic is piling up and heading to landfills. Sunil’s operation is the exception. With that black hole closed for good, the world will have to actually think about what happens to all the plastic it consumes, whether it ends up in China, Malaysia,
or the United States. – It’s very easy to blame China for using all this stuff, but the only reason China is using all this stuff is because there’s consumer demand. And consumers who are buying this stuff made in China are the ones who are ultimately responsible. And maybe, most important of all, is whether we should be using all this plastic in the first place.