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We''''re traveling around the world to find out how China is reshaping... basically everything. This week, recycling.


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.
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.


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.


Then, in 2017 China upended the industry - it decided to ban almost all plastic waste from entering the country.


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.
"The ban has been incredibly disruptive. 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."

亚当·明特(Adam Minter)是一名记者,多年来一直在报道中国和全球垃圾产业。他说,这项禁令迫使中国的废品回收商不得不向外迁移。


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 operatores began setting up shop, often illegally, to recycle plastic and sell it back home, where there was still huge demand for pellets.


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.


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.

普阿·雷鹏(Pua Lay Peng)是位于吉隆坡郊外约35英里的詹贾罗姆镇的居民。她是当地一个激进组织的成员,该组织致力于制止非法倾倒和焚烧塑料垃圾的行为。

China''''s ban has disrupted the global recycling system. It''''s also revealed the extent to which the system is broken.



Sunil Bagaria is president of one of the largest companies in the US that deals with plastic scrap.
"The whole industry was like, ''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''Oh my God, what do we do now?'''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''' 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.

苏尼尔·巴加拉(Sunil Bagaria)是美国最大塑料废品处理公司其中一家的总裁。

"Certainly it proved to be a blessing in disguise for the recycling industry in the USA. So, we are setting up to make pellets."
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.


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?" "To find suitable partners, and maybe next year or next two years, we have great opportunity to develop all of American market."


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.