Is a Snickers Wrapper Hazardous Waste? Limiting the trade in certain plastics isn’t going to mitigate the threat to the environment.

By Adam Minter

April 27, 2019, 5:00 PM PDT

A plastic water bottle, a Snickers wrapper and a container of detergent are dropped into a recycling bin. Are they hazardous waste? They could be, according to a Norwegian government proposal, which marks the latest effort by activists and government officials to tackle the growing tide of plastics threatening the ocean.

The proposal has good intentions: It aims to mitigate the overflow of plastics across the globe, which surged when China stopped importing recycled materials last year. But it’s not going to save the oceans. Quite the contrary: By imposing new layers of red tape, it’s more likely to inhibit the re-use of plastics, promote landfilling and incineration, and intensify the use of virgin raw materials, including petrochemicals.

Over the past two decades, Chinese recyclers and manufacturers developed a cottage industry finding value in rich countries’ leftover materials, eventually becoming the world’s top buyers of scrap plastics. Beijing, determined to boost the fortunes of China’s domestic players, then severely restricted the import of scrap recyclables, including plastics, on Jan. 1, 2018.

Since then, that plastic has found its way to other countries. Many of China’s recyclers and manufacturers relocated abroad, especially in nearby Southeast Asia, where they can import freely. In principle, that’s not a bad thing. Even before the trade war, Chinese manufacturing was moving into lower-cost neighbors, and recyclers were following. Since the imposition of U.S. tariffs on China, that process has continued and even accelerated. It’s only natural that the raw material suppliers — especially the recyclers — follow the manufacturers.

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