Waste and plastics – New game-changers for China’s high-quality transformation?

On China’s high-quality growth agenda, not only sustainable production, but also sustainable consumption is considered a new driver and “game-changer” for a science-based and innovation-driven system transformation. In this context,...

On China’s high-quality growth agenda, not only sustainable production, but also sustainable consumption is considered a new driver and “game-changer” for a science-based and innovation-driven system transformation. In this context, Sweden’s experience and track-record in the field of sustainable solid waste management is of particular interest – for China’s high-level policy advisory, research cooperation and engagement of the business sector and the civil society.

During 16-21 January our Section had the great pleasure to welcome our colleagues Eva Ahlner and Ping Höjding from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, Naturvårdsverket) and Dr. Han Guoyi from Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). Their China visit focused specifically on policy research and exchange on sustainable consumption and was followed by a comprehensive “plastics scoping mission” on the ground.

China’s 14th Five-Year-Plan and international experience in sustainable consumption

At the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), the Special Policy Study (SPS) team on Green Transition and Sustainable Social Governance co-led by China and Sweden, is carrying  out an intensive policy research work, ahead of the 14th Five-Year-Plan (FYP) Period (2021- 2025) to provide policy inputs and recommendations. This China visit was the first time that the international expert team, including experts from Sweden (Eva Ahlner), Germany and Japan and coordinated by Dr. Han Guoyi met in Beijing to work together and with their Chinese colleagues.  Given the fact that green consumption will be an integral pillar of China’s green and high-quality transformation in the 14th FYP, international experience, i.e. both successful showcases and lessons learned will be highly valuable inputs to the policy development process.  Sweden’s experience of transition to sustainable consumption patterns, in terms of national strategies, effectiveness of policy instruments and mixes, stakeholder engagement, not least consumers’ responsibilities and behavioral change, government agency collaboration as well as gender perspective, will all be useful inputs in this context. Particularly, Sweden’s unique experience (also challenge) of integrating sustainable production and consumption into Sweden’s environmental quality objectives system (Miljökvalitetsmålen) as well as frontier research work on indicator systems for sustainable consumption, are of great interests for both policy and research, in China and internationally.

Sweden’s Ambassador to China, Helena Sångeland received the CCICED SPS-international expert team at her Residence for a briefing on CCICED and its policy work on sustainable production and consumption.
A joint SPS working session between the Chinese and international exptert teams, together with the high-level presentatives from CCICED and the State Council.

China’s new guidelines on reducing plastic use and pollution

However, for such a broad area as “sustainable production and consumption”, where can Sweden start to promote and contribute to China’s system transformation, which is not only important for China, but also for Sweden and the world? Given the scale, the urgency as well as its global and systemic nature, can plastics use and pollution be a starting point for exploring the future cooperation? (See key figures on China’s challenges with plastics usage and waste in Box below)

As it turns out, the Swedish “plastics mission” to China in January took place just-on-time! On 21 January, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry for Ecology and Environment (MEE), released the long-awaited new guidelines for reducing plastics use and pollution, replacing the existing guidelines from 2008, with following goals to be achieved by 2025:

  • Through innovation, improve functions of plastics products and reduce their costs
  • Control plastic pollution and reduce the amount of plastic waste in landfills
  • Reduce single-use plastics and develop and use substitutes
  • Ban production and consumption of thin plastic bags and mulch film in agricultural production
  • Use environmentally friendly packaging in delivery and logistics services
  • Set up collection stations for plastic waste in prioritized areas

Plastics scoping mission – market development, business engagement and research efforts

To obtain some hands-on observations and deeper understanding of the current development as well as the needs for international cooperation for sustainable plastics use and waste management, the senior adviser for China cooperation from Swedish EPA, Ping Höjding, IVL Swedish Environment Institute, Beijing Office together with us carried out a comprehensive “plastics scoping mission” in Beijing and Qingdao. We would like to, most sincerely, thank all the organizations and partners who helped us set up this mission and received us for very valuable information exchanges and brainstorming discussions![1]

Brainstorming discussion on the current and future development of sustainable plastics waste management with Dr. Jiang Nanqing, Secretary General of China Plastics Reuse and Recycling Association (CPRRA)
Presentation and discussion of closed-loop post-consumer recycled plastics (PCC) program of Lenovo, the world’s largest personal-computer maker and visit at Lenovo Future Center.
Visit to Institute of Ocean, Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) in Qingdao on microplastics pollution, ocean ecosystem monitoring and protection and their work on Agenda 2030.

Here are a few key take-aways from the scoping mission that we would like to share:

  • China’s plastics industry is in transition, from importing and recycling nearly half of the world’s recyclables to implementing a ban on foreign wastes, including plastics. The post-consumer recycling plastics that China imported was, in general, of higher quality than plastic waste that the Chinese industry now will have to manage in an environmentally friendly way. The challenge for China now is how to build up efficient and sustainable systems, in terms of legal and regulatory frameworks, long-term and market-based economic incentives as well as infrastructure and technical capacity to reduce plastics use and to recycle and re-use plastics. In other words, how to build a “new plastics economy” for China’s sustainable, innovative and high-quality transformation?
  • Faced by the daunting challenging, some global companies, using their global outreach along the value-chain as well as their innovation capacity, are leading the way in finding innovative and sustainable solutions to tackle plastics issues. Lenovo, the world’s largest personal-computer maker, has for example been successful in introducing Closed-Loop Post-Consumer Recycled Plastics (PCC) in all of their products. Since 2017 Lenovo has been using closed-loop PCC materials in its products and packaging material. This reduces the environmental risk and pollution from manufacturing. The company estimates that it avoided more than 62,000 MT CO2 emission due to recycling end-of-life electronic products in their fiscal year 2017-18. Lenovo has also launched its Eco-Friendly Material Research and Innovation program, covering eco-design, supply chain and recycling. In the near future, we need and will see more and more companies making such innovation and investment efforts, for “co-benefits” of resource efficiency and climate actions as well as for the “win-win-win” of reducing environmental, social and economic risks.  
  • At the branch/industrial level, Chinese branch organizations, such as CPRRA are already looking into examples of industry standards and supply-chain best practices, for instance, from the North American Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE). As an example, APR provides a list of recommended plastics suppliers with high sustainability performance. This kind of practices will also be very helpful for the development of branch organizations in China.
  • Given the fact that around half of China’s plastic waste is managed in coastal areas, such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Guangdong and Fujian, there are close links between land-based plastics pollution prevention and reduction on the one hand, and protection of ocean environment and ecosystem on the other. Furthermore, not only marine litter, but also the pollution and damages caused by microplastics from industrial wastewater discharge, e.g. from textile industries, have caused increasingly large attention in China and globally. In this context, an integrated “source-to-sea” approach, which was developed by the Swedish research community and strongly supported by various Swedish government agencies could be highly relevant for the future cooperation with China. From our discussion with the Institute of Ocean of Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) in Qingdao, we see that there are both interest and research capacity that have prepared a solid ground for such joint efforts in the future.

Last, but not least, along with these insights and inspirations from the scoping mission, we would also like to share a piece of good news, i.e. the Swedish EPA is having a new call for development projects between Sweden and BRIICS countries for sustainable plastic use,  launcched in February! We sincerely hope that our Swedish and Chinese colleagues and partners will take this opportunity to take the first step for collaboration and co-creation to make waste and plastics new “game-changers “for sustainable transformation in China and for the world! 

Nannan Lundin, Matilde Eng and Linnea Yang


[1] A warm thank you to Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Lenovo Group, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Chinese Research Academy of Environmental sciences (CRAES), China Plastics Reuse and Recycling Association (CPRRA), Eleme Inc., Institute of Oceanology Chinese Academy of Sciences. Also, our warmest thanks to China Household Electric Appliance Research Institute and Hangxing Science Park whose meetings and site visits were cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak.