China's fight against plastic pollution has global impact
Updated 16:33, 25-Jan-2020
David Lee

Editor's note: David Lee is a consultant and author based in Beijing who focuses on energy, health, international politics and international development. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN. 

The global fight against plastic pollution will not be won without meaningful contribution by the world's second largest economy.

According to domestic industry figures in 2018, China has grown into the world's biggest plastic producer and consumer. Accumulated historical data show China has produced over one billion tons of plastic products since 1949, the year the People's Republic of China was founded.

Over the weekend, the global fight against plastic pollution was significantly boosted thanks to China's newly announced national plan to aggressively phase out single-use and non-biodegradable plastic products across industry sectors and in both urban and rural areas over the next few years into 2025.

China's latest national policy to address the plastic problem has arrived at a time when industry activities and consumer behaviors involving shipping, packaging, and even take-away food are putting increasing pressure on the environment.

Before the latest, more ambitious policy step-up, China has taken incremental measures over the years to address plastic pollution. China issued an order to restrict production and sales of plastic shopping bags in December 2007. In 2018, China began to ban imports of plastic waste from other countries. And in November last year, China announced plans to stop the production of everyday chemical products containing micro plastic beads by end 2020 and to ban the sale of such products by end 2022.

Socio-economic dynamics characterized by rising consumption and industrial production is taking place across other emerging economies and developing countries, which is expected to aggravate the plastic problem. Key battles of the long fight against plastic are to be fought where plastic use is expected to rise in the foreseeable future.

To have a set of effective industry policies in place is understood to provide the best toolkit to address the plastic problem. To complement industry policies, it's also important to educate the public with the aim to promote a more sustainable lifestyle. As industry policies address production or the supply side, the fight on the demand side must be won by people living in industrialized societies and developing countries alike.

/VCG Photo

/VCG Photo

In light of the intensifying fight against plastic pollution by 1.4 billion people, and to put China's plastic management in the context of ongoing global efforts, several key areas may be identified for China's contribution.

First and foremost, accounting for more than six percent of the world's land mass and featuring several major rivers that run through her vast land and into the ocean, China can significantly contribute to the ongoing scientific research into how plastics affect nature and environment.

Sound policy measures are data-driven ones. A World Economic Forum study found that the Yangtze river carries more plastic pollution into the ocean than any other waterway in the world. Scientific data is keenly needed, and Chinese generated data in particular can play a big role in promoting not only domestic pollution monitoring and control but also international cooperation.

It's also important, however, to keep in mind that managing plastic is different from conventional waste management and that the fight against plastic pollution represents an emerging science in itself with new discoveries being made along the way. As industrialized countries are taking the lead in scientific research, investment in monitoring and research capacity in China must catch up quickly.

In addition, existing international governance of plastic remains limited. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal provides a good framework for coordinated international efforts to manage plastic waste. The success model of the Basel Convention should be used for wider plastic management effort.

As the world's biggest plastic producer and consumer, China's ongoing governance experiments involve not only plastic waste management, but also other key areas such as the use of tiny plastic beads in chemical products and plastic mulching in agriculture. Assessments of the efficacy of such policy tools implemented in a large emerging economy can give valuable inputs to potentially wider global governance measures.

As the global fight against plastics continues, China will definitely play an even more important role and continue to make key contributions. 

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