Is the ban of waste imports by China going to be a wake-up call?

From today, 1 January 2018, China will stop to import and recycle 24 categories of our waste, in a move to improve environmental conditions, the health of the population and quality control of products. The dimensions of this new situation are staggering: For example, 87 % of plastic waste collected for recycling in the EU27 was (up to now) exported to China and in 2016, the USA exported over 1.4 million tons of waste plastic to China, a business worth almost half a billion US dollar. Since the 1980s, China has developed into the world’s ‘trash can’. The imported ‘trash’ fuelled part of the country’s economic development by providing valuable resources, while also causing unprecedented environmental damage and health problems through poorly regulated waste streams and illegal recycling activities. The upcoming waste import ban has been on the cards for a while (China notified the WTO in July 2017) and the media in top consumer societies have responded with some analysis and some alarm:

  • Reuters, 28 Sept 2017: ‘China ban on waste imports leads to piles of paper abroad, surging prices in China.’ Since the summer, the effects of the then partial ban lead to 2500 tonnes of additional paper waste piling up every day on Hong Kong’s docks, with its usual destination in China blocked. Besides the obvious problems of managing that waste, the price of paper manufactured in the region increased, as the availability of raw material diminished. In turn, this has implications for overseas markets: Most cardboard packaging used by online retailers, such as Amazon, originates in China…
  • The Conversation, 20 Oct 2017: ‘China bans foreign waste – but what will happen to the world’s recycling?’ The question is pressing: possibilities include controlled landfill, incineration, storage or more sophisticated recycling in the country where the waste is generated. Of course, limiting waste generation is an option for a brighter future, not least because it also saves resources and is overall more sustainable. But I cannot ignore that there are ‘darker’ pathways, less publicised, because less palatable, options, which may be pursued in the short term: shipping to countries with lower regulatory standards than China, plenty of  precedence for which exists in Africa and throughout Asia.
  • The Independent, 7 Dec 2017: ‘China’s ban on imported plastic leads to ‘impending crisis’ for UK waste recycling.’  This article notes that European plastic waste is just not good enough anymore for Chinese recycling standards, but also offers the hope that the new situation may provide opportunities for the UK to improve domestic recycling facilities.
  • NPR, 9 Dec 2017: ‘Recycling chaos in U.S. as China bans ‘foreign waste” states that the USA export one third of its recycling, of which 50% China used to take. According to this source, at present, the ‘rest of the world’ cannot make up the gap and for the domestic market, the waste has no value as a resource.
  • The Guardian, 15 Dec 2017: ‘China waste clampdown could create UK cardboard recycling chaos, say industry experts’. China has reduced the level of acceptable contamination (metal staples, plastic tape etc.) of cardboard from 1.5% to 0.5%, which could result in thousands of tonnes of waste being shipped back to the sender. In 2016, 7.3 million tonnes of plastic waste was imported into China from the EU, USA and Japan – something these countries will have to deal with themselves in 2018.

And so the stories continue…of course, this could be a wake-up call for nations, whose collective wealth is based on unsustainable levels of economic growth to seek more sustainable economic models and assess the wellbeing of their population with metrics other than GDP. A wake-up call for industry to find more sustainable and equitable ways of sourcing materials and producing goods that are designed to have long useful ‘lives’. A wake-up call for all of us to live more sustainably and develop more sutainable patterns of consumption, based on well-informed decisions.

It is time to take on the challenge China has presented to the global waste market and really embrace waste avoidance the highest priority at all scales!

References

Baxter, Tom and Hua, Liu (31/12/2017) 24 reasons why China’s ban on foreign trash is a wake-up call for global waste exporters. South-China Morning Post. Online: http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2126098/24-reasons-why-chinas-ban-foreign-trash-wake-call-global [accessed 01/01/2018].

Cole, Christine (25/10/2017) China bans foreign waste – but what will happen to the world’s recycling? The Independent. Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/china-foreign-waste-ban-recycling-a8011801.html [accessed 01/01/2018].

Laville, Sandra (15/12/2017) China waste clampdown could create UK cardboard recycling chaos, say industry experts. The Guardian. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/15/china-waste-clampdown-could-create-uk-cardboard-recycling-chaos-say-industry-experts [accessed 01/01/2018].

Musaddique, Shafi and Gabbatiss, Josh (07/12/2017) China’s ban on imported plastic leads to ‘impending crisis’ for UK waste recycling. The Independent. Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/china-plastic-import-ban-uk-recycling-landfill-options-waste-crisis-disposal-a8097166.html

Profita, Cassandra and Burns, Jes (09/12/2017) Recycling Chaos In U.S. As China Bans ‘Foreign Waste’ NPA Morning Edition. Online: https://www.npr.org/2017/12/09/568797388/recycling-chaos-in-u-s-as-china-bans-foreign-waste [accessed 01/01/2018].

SWITCH Asia (2016) Waste Management and the Circular Economy in Asia. Briefing. SWITCH-Asia Network Facility Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP), Wuppertal, Germany. Online: http://www.switch-asia.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/SWITCH-Asia_Briefing_No6_-_Waste_Management_-_Screen_FINAL.pdf [accessed 01/01/2018].

Yiu, Pak (28/09/2017) China ban on waste imports leads to piles of paper abroad, surging prices in China. Reuters. Online: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-hongkong-paperrecycling/china-ban-on-waste-imports-leads-to-piles-of-paper-abroad-surging-prices-in-china-idUSKCN1C30GR [accessed 01/01/2018].

 

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