10 Crazy Facts about Plastic Pollution in China

The Great Wall of China. Yangtze River. Skyscrapers in Shanghai.

China has a great list of things to be proud of.

But there’s one thing they tend to hide from the travel magazines: the big problem with plastic pollution.

I’ve been working in China for about five years. During that time, I learned an awful lot about the bizarre plastic industry that’s going on in this country. And that’s what this article is all about.

These are 10 bizarre (and hopefully interesting) facts about plastic pollution in China.

1. China plans to ban all single-use plastic bags by 2022


BBC recently published an article saying that China will ban all plastic bags by the year 2022. Let’s see if this regulation will go into effect. However, it’s a lovely thing to do by the Chinese Communist Party.

I just struggle to see that you can ban all plastic bags in a country with 1.4 billion people.

PS! Chile was the first major country that banned all plastic bags in 2018. You can read that story by clicking here.

PS2! This article is probably the ones that my Chinese readers love. It’s called “10 Ways China is contributing to an environmentally friendly planet“. It features how China deals with its pollution problems in their own country. Please note that I would never publish any political stuff on this website.

And make sure that you leave a comment in the comment section below if you tend to disagree with anything. 🙂

2. Less than half of all plastic bottles in China are recycled.

Producing a lot of plastic is one thing. Not recycling is even worse.

It’s not only the plastic bottles that aren’t recycled. China has a total plastic recycling rate of 22 %.

In comparison, Europe has a recycling rate of 42 % (according to Eurostat).

I know a thing or two about recycling plastic. And let me tell you this: it’s not that 42 % is super high. But only recycling about 1/5 of all the plastic waste in your country…that is quite low.

80 % of all the plastic will end up in nature, which has quite extreme consequences.

How many plastic bottles are sold in China?

When I lived in China, I was amazed by the number of plastic bottles being thrown around. The streets were full of them.

So I did look up some interesting statistics.

According to Plastic Soup Foundation*, China sold 68 billion plastic bottles of water in 2015. And this is how the development has been until 2020:

Number of water plastic bottles sold in China

Total number of plastic bottles sold in China every year.

Unless we do something, there will soon be sold more than 150 billion water plastic bottles in China every year.

Damn.

* = I know. A super weird name of an organization.

3. Chinese people are responsible for 28 % of all the plastic pollution on the planet

According to this article from ozy.com, almost 1/3 of all the plastic pollution can be traced back to China.

On the other hand, “only” 18 % of the worlds’ population is Chinese.

Time to improve.

This is why we are happy to hear that the Chinese government have started to take plastic pollution seriously.

4. 70 % of the plastic products manufactured in China are exported


In other words: a lot of the plastic that is being produced in China is actually sent to other countries.

One of the least eco-friendly things you can do is to import a lot of plastic from a country far, far away. By looking around you right now, I bet you can see five plastic items that have been made in Asia. 🙂

Which countries import most of the plastic products from China?

That’s easy to find out. Combining various sources online, I figured out which countries that import most of the cheap plastic products. This is a list of the top five countries:

CountryPercentage of total plastic products imported from China
United States17 %
Hong Kong11.2 %
Japan5.3 %
South Korea4.4 %
Vietnam3.8 %

To be honest, I wasn’t very surprised that the USA came up as number 1.

5. Chinese rivers are filled with plastic

New York Post published a report that was originally written by the Chinese government. In all honesty, they admitted that plastic pollution in the Chinese rivers increased by 27 % from 2017 to 2018.

You might think: Why is it a problem that the rivers are filled with plastic?

Well.

Have a look at the video below. That’s how bad it can get. 🙂

6. China will stop importing plastic trash from other countries

Previously, China imported loads of plastic waste from other (richer) countries. That’s about to stop.

Why?

Well, because they don’t need to anymore. They have more than enough to cope with their own trash. In addition to that, China has seen a huge GDP increase over the last years. They do no longer “need” to import trash for Western countries in exchange for some cash.

If you want to learn more about this, this 10 minutes video is actually quite good:

7. Plastic fragments were found in fish dishes in China

According to this article from South China Morning Post, scientists in Hong Kong examined a fish called “flathead grey mullet”. In more than 60 % of the incidents, plastic fragments could be found in the fish.

That’s disgusting.

It’s more disgusting to think that this fish is considered a “specialty” in Southern China & Hong Kong.

Guys. We are eating plastic now. This madness has to stop.

8. You can recycle plastic and get paid PER KILO

One thing I saw when I was living in Shanghai were these rickshaws filled with plastic on the back of them. Some people (usually middle-aged men and women) gathered plastic, drove it to the recycling center, and got paid for it.

And that’s great. That’s exactly why plastic isn’t floating about in the streets of Beijing and Shanghai.

Plastic waste can be transported “easily” on bikes and rickshaws. Photo: Pixabay.

9. There’s an interesting documentary out there called “Plastic China”

As an environmentalist nerd, one of my favorite hobbies is to sit down and watch documentaries about pollution. “Plastic China” features the drama that goes on at a plastic recycling place in Northern China.

Poverty, poor living conditions for children, strong family bonds, and Chinese culture. It’s all wrapped into a 1 hour and 30 minutes long documentary – that I will strongly recommend. I wrote an article about the documentary that you can read by clicking here.

Trailer:

10. Plastic is NOT the biggest pollution problem in China

Living in China for more than five years, I know an awful lot about pollution. And let me put it this way: most Chinese people are not complaining about the (enourmous) plastic problem in their country.

They got bigger environmental problems.

I could go on about air pollution, the importance of wearing a proper mask outside and how many people are killed by poor air quality every day. Instead, I will point you to this article that’s called “this is what I learned from living a year in the Beijing air pollution“.

It’s a very honest post that I actually wrote while living in Beijing.

Video: air pollution in Beijing (from 2013)

This was the air quality I had to face when walking to school back then:

I could literally taste the smog in my mouth. It was just like chewing on an old cigarette. Something tells me that it isn’t very healthy. 🙂

Wrapping up

As you can see, China got some serious problems related to plastic waste. Everyone that has ever been to China knows that this is true.

That being said, the government does acknowledge plastic pollution as a problem. However, we will see how the “plastic ban” will work out.

I remember that the government also banned smoking inside bars, pubs, and nightclubs. They were super strict on that for about two weeks. After about a month, it was more smoking than ever going on.

So let’s see. China has a population of nearly 1.5 billion people, which makes it hard to roll out such a significant ban on something as useful as plastic bags. Time will tell how that will go.

3 thoughts on “10 Crazy Facts about Plastic Pollution in China”

  1. China isn’t exactly a clean country. Remember going there a couple of years ago with my family. WORST HOLIDAY EVERY.

    Plastic is floating about in the strees, the Chinese people are shouting at each other (no manners) and the food, which they are so proud of, tastes horrible. Never again.

    1. I see.

      Sad you had that experience in China. Unfortunately, plastic pollution is a problem in many Chinese cities – also where tourists usually go around.

  2. China has a problem with several types of pollution. Plastic pollution is probably the LEAST important.

    I would rather say that food waste and smog are more important factors.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top