China’s regulatory respond to plastic pollution: Trends and trajectories

China is the world’s largest plastic producer. In the year 2021, China produced about 80.1 million metric tonnes of plastic, and estimates vary regarding China’s impact of plastic pollution on the world’s oceans. Though one of the world’s largest producers of plastic and a major contributor to global plastic pollution, China has undertaken serious efforts in the last two decades to address plastic pollution by ramping up and strengthening its regulatory frameworks with the ambition of significantly reducing the leakage of plastic into the environment. The research analysing China’s regulatory approach to governing plastic is limited and fragmented, and as such, little is known about the trends and trajectories dominating China’s plastic policy landscape. This paper seeks to address the gap in the literature through the construction and analysis of a complete inventory of China’s plastic-related policies from January 1, 2000, to June 30, 2021. An analysis of 231 Chinese policy documents using the qualitative analysis software NVIVO revealed that China began to govern plastics seriously and concertedly in 2016, drastically transforming the regulatory realm in the sector. A total of 41 plastic-related policies exist today, compared with only four in 2000, an increase of 925 percent since then. As a result, China underwent a significant revolution in its approach to governing plastics; not only the goal and purpose of regulating plastics showcased an increase, but also the types of plastics targeted and the different aspects of the plastic value chain included in various policies became increasingly comprehensive over time. Different regulatory instruments were deployed and utilised for governing plastics in China, with a major focus on prohibitive bans and information campaigns dominating the Chinese policy instruments. Economic policy instruments, on the other hand, were gaining popularity. Despite the massive increase in relevant plastic policies in China, the main focus was still on the back-end policy, with little regulatory attention on the upstream part of the plastic life cycle. A diverse set of regulatory instruments were utilised by Chinese policymakers in designing policies with the aim of regulating plastics. The current study focuses on analysing the trend of policy issuances and the characteristics of these policies, and as such, very little focus was placed on the enforcement and implementation of these policies in this study. It discusses the synergies between reducing plastic production, consumption, and waste treatment, as well as policies and plastic clean-up efforts. Additionally, the paper highlights the necessity to critically examine the rationale behind policies that use information as a regulatory instrument, and the scholarly community should pay greater attention to these issues ahead of the negotiations for a global plastic treaty. The article examines the trends and responses of China’s regulatory system to plastic pollution. To provide a comprehensive inventory of Chinese-related police policies and regulations, the article draws on data and information from a variety of sources.

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