New Year, New Relationship with Plastic

The first of January is when we all resolve to adopt better habits but this new year may mark an entirely different way to think about our relationship to plastic, whether we like it or not.

Starting today China, which has long been a massive consumer of the rest of the world’s plastic waste, will no longer accept more than half of the plastic that it formerly imported. Until now, China has had a huge appetite for the plastic bottles, forks and other disposables that other nations toss away unthinkingly, recycling that waste into raw materials used to create the similarly disposable Chinese goods the rest of us can’t stop buying.

That appetite has now been halved and the consequences are likely to be nontrivial. China’s goal is to reduce pollution and improve the health of its citizenry. In the near term however, the many countries who have long relied on China as a kind of dumping ground for its plastics may see their pollution levels rise. In fact the market for recyclables is likely to suffer substantially as China now turns to manufacturers of new plastics for what it needs to continue to create new goods. In short: more new plastic will be produced, and less old plastic will be recycled.

The silver lining may be that first world consumers begin to focus more on reduction and reuse rather than just on recycling. We have for too long allowed ourselves the convenient out of being able to toss an unlimited number of goods into a green or blue recycling bin without thinking about whether those goods should have been used to begin with, or whether they could serve some useful secondary purpose.

For designers, this is an opportunity here to reframe the way problems are solved. Designers of physical goods, particularly, may soon need to emphasize the sourcing of materials and the sturdiness of their solutions, optimizing for environmental impact both in the creation and the useful lifespan of what gets designed. There are likely to be downstream consequences for non-material designers too; to some extent design has always been able to assume a constantly refreshing supply of surfaces onto which our designs can be applied, whether digital or analog. In a world where a major portion of those surfaces can no longer be recycled or even manufactured in the first place, the way we think about what a good design solution is may change drastically. It’s hard to argue that this more holistic view on how we all conduct ourselves is not necessary but whether we’ll rise to the occasion or not is of course an open question. It’s a new year, it’s up to us what we make of it.