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    China Hopes to Scrap Reliance on Imported Waste

    Environment ministry cites pollution risks, but experts warn that foreign garbage supports too many industries to be banned outright.

    In early July, 60 inspection teams swept into cities in 27 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions across China. Their sole mission: to catch law-abusing waste importers. A week later, on July 11, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) reported that nearly 77 percent of all waste-importing companies evaluated were suspected of unlawful acts.

    The surprise inspections, which will continue throughout the month, follow a February plan from the General Administration of Customs to combat the smuggling of solid waste. Dubbed “Sharp Sword 2017,” it promised to clamp down on the plastics, discarded electronics, city garbage, and industrial materials flowing across China’s borders.

    All of this foreign garbage, as it is colloquially called, poses pollution risks to the environment and health risks to people. China imports about 50 million tons of waste per year — about as much as 10 of China’s largest cities produce in household garbage annually. Beginning July 1, the monthlong campaign aims to monitor companies involved in importing, recycling, and repurposing waste from abroad and punish instances of misconduct.

    According to Chen Demin, director of the Institute of Sustainable Development at Chongqing University, the waste China imports from its trading partners is, by and large, not the mountains of household trash most people probably picture. Instead, “waste” can be anything a particular industry no longer has a use for. As such, foreign waste is often cleaner and better-quality than domestic waste, he told Sixth Tone — so much so, in fact, that many industries in China show a clear preference for the former.

    Chen gave steel as an example. Many countries have a high quality standard for the steel they produce, and when this material is no longer needed, it becomes a prime candidate for recycling and repurposing in China. “We cannot close the door on this,” Chen said, adding that the fields essential to producing steel, such as mining and metallurgy, are neither cost-effective nor sustainable by comparison.

    The problem is that the process of recycling imported waste into new products generates its own waste that often ends up burned, buried, or dumped into rivers — all of which contaminate the environment, said Mao Da, founder of Zero Waste Beijing, a nonprofit group devoted to reuse and recycling. Furthermore, it is “hypocritical” for wealthier, more developed nations to brag about how clean and civilized they are if they’re also unloading their trash onto their poorer neighbors, he told Sixth Tone.

    China’s central government in April of this year passed a reform plan to maintain a focus on ecological and public health, to improve the management of solid waste imports, to ban the import of certain categories of waste outright, to reduce the import quantity of other waste categories, and to strengthen the management of waste recycling programs.

    Some, like Chen of Chongqing University, see this raft of measures as excessive. “Because China is not so affluent in terms of resources, we can’t throw out the baby along with the bathwater,” he said.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Imported scrap metal sits piled at a dock in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, Nov. 27, 2008. Jia Ce/VCG)