China Expands Controversial Bans on Imported Waste
China has expanded its waste import ban and will close its borders to an additional 32 types of solid waste, including slag and scrap metal, by 2020. The announcement, jointly issued Thursday by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and three other ministry-level departments, is the country’s latest push to eliminate wastes from overseas — and the environmental problems they pose.
Sixteen types of solid waste — including scrap metal, old ships, and slag produced from smelting — can no longer be imported after 2018, and another 16 types — including timber and stainless steel — cannot be imported beyond 2019.
In the past, when China needed raw materials to fuel its rapidly growing economy, it took advantage of low labor costs to sort, clean, and repurpose imported solid waste. However, substandard methods and a lack of official supervision at privately owned mills and factories led to pollution and other environmental problems, said Du Huanzheng, director of the Circular Economy Research Institute at Tongji University in Shanghai. Now, with rising environmental awareness, the Chinese government has begun restricting waste imports, he said, and requiring its trade partners to sort and clean their garbage before exporting it.
But Du and other experts question whether the bans will hurt the competitiveness of China’s manufacturing industry moving forward.
“This imported solid waste is not just garbage, but scrap materials that China’s manufacturing industry desperately needs,” Du told Sixth Tone. Because China lacks mineral resources, he added, imported waste is heavily relied on to supply factories with raw materials.
China’s growing preoccupation with protecting the environment has raised costs for its once-cheap manufacturing industry, said Du. After China tightened restrictions on imported waste paper in July 2017, for example, the price of paper increased dramatically.
China’s imported waste ban has had a global impact, too, as places like the U.S. and Europe are now stuck with tons upon tons of unwanted trash. At a meeting of the World Trade Organization in late March, the U.S. asked China to reconsider its bans.
For years, trash smuggling was a problem that “seriously endangered people’s physical health and the safety of our country’s ecological environment,” according to the environment bureau’s 2017 plan to curb solid waste imports. By the end of 2017, the ministry banned 24 types of solid waste from abroad, including household plastics, unclassified paper, and textile scraps. The ministry professed that its goal was to “build a beautiful China and a moderately prosperous society.”
In January and February of this year, Chinese customs seized a combined 50,000 tons of illegally imported waste. And in an intensified crackdown earlier this month, customs seized an additional 110,000 tons of foreign trash.
By 2020, China has vowed to phase out any imported waste that could be replaced by domestically available resources. But Du believes that extracting these resources can potentially raise greater environmental concerns than recycling, and thinks of the import ban as “prescribing a single solution for a host of diverse problems.” Instead, he suggests authorities should crack down on unlicensed recycling operations and tighten supervision over the industry more broadly.
“Imported solid waste is a double-edged sword,” Du said. “On the one hand, it’s a matter of obtaining resources; on the other, it’s a matter of protecting the environment.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A worker naps among imported waste in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, Sept. 9, 2011. Yan Zhi/VCG)