LAST year, China banned the imports of 24 categories of recyclable waste. The ban had a big impact in the recycling industry because China is the world’s largest importer of waste. Hardest hit is scrap plastic. In 2012, up to 56 percent of global exported plastic waste ended up in China. Will this be a step backward for the recycling industry and solid waste management as a whole?

Recently, Greenpeace came up with a story entitled “Unearthed”, which studied the effect of the China scrap ban on the United States, the largest global waste exporter. As exports drops, waste firms in the US struggled to find takers for their plastic scrap. The report said that Southeast Asian countries absorbed the banned materials. Trade data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that U.S. waste went Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Korea.

However, the influx of scrap into these countries forced some to impose restrictions on imports. In Malaysia for instance, their Ministry of Housing and Local Government imposed a levy of 15 ringgits (about $3.62) per metric ton of waste imports. The Malaysian government stopped issuing scrap plastic import permits in July, explaining that it was a three-month measure while officials developed regulatory controls. The tax will begin on Oct. 23, the day the government begins processing import permits again.

“Unearthed” says that restrictions have also been introduced in Vietnam. In May, authorities in the country announced a temporary ban on plastic and paper waste imports from the middle of this June until October. Two of the country’s biggest ports – Tan Cang-Cai Mep International and Tan Cang-Cat Lai – have reportedly become overwhelmed with plastic and paper scrap since the China ban came into force.

In Thailand, the influx of trash forced the government to introduce inspections of all plastics and electronic waste imports into the country. The country’s authorities have also pledged to send waste back to where it came from if it’s imported without proper description.

So now, waste management companies must overhaul their operations to meet the quality requirements imposed by China. This of course will result in higher operating cost. Households might be required to do more segregation. In the global scrap trading business, it is now a buyer’s market. Before, recyclers pay for recyclable waste, now it’s the other way around. They will charge waste generators for taking away their scraps.

What will happen to all the unsold waste piling up? It will probably go to sanitary landfills or incinerators or waste-to-energy plants. This is a big setback in global recycling efforts. There will be no more incentives for people to recycle their waste. There will be loss of jobs in the recycling industry.

The focus now should be on the other two “R”s of waste management: Reduce and Reuse. People should avoid plastic waste and switch to reusable ones. Manufacturers on the other hand should be encouraged or even forced through legislation to use a high proportion of recycled content in their products. The answer to this crisis is a combination of a change in government policy and a change in consumer behavior, aided by modern recycling technology.