China says no to ‘foreign garbage’
China’s cabinet said Thursday “foreign garbage” will be entirely banned from entering the country as authorities plan stricter management on solid waste imports.
By the end of 2017, the country will forbid imports of solid waste that cause great environmental damage and raise strong public concerns, according to a reform plan on solid waste import management released by the State Council.
By the end of 2019, the country will phase out imports of solid waste that can replaced by domestic resources, the plan said.
The release of the plan came after China notified the World Trade Organization last week that it will ban imports of 24 types of solid waste, including waste plastics, unsorted scrap paper, discarded textiles and vanadium slag by the end of 2017.
China started to import solid waste as raw materials to make up for the domestic shortage of resources in the 1980s, but some companies have illegally smuggled “foreign garbage” into the country for profit, damaging the environment and public health.
China will gradually reduce the categories and amount of solid waste imports and raise the import threshold, according to the plan.
Border control on “foreign garbage” will be intensified, and severe punishment will be imposed on the reselling and illegal processing of imported waste.
A long-term mechanism will be established to kept “foreign garbage” out, while international cooperation on returning the garbage will be enhanced, the plan said.
The Chinese government is stepping up the fight against pollution and environmental degradation as decades of fast growth have left the country saddled with smog and contaminated soil.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) launched a month-long campaign on July 1 to crack down on pollution in imported waste processing, with 420 inspectors selected from 27 provincial regions forming 60 teams to conduct full-scale investigations.
China’s medium-sized and large cities imported 46.98 million metric tons of solid waste in 2015, down 5.3 percent year-on-year, according to MEP figures.
In 2014, the whole country imported 49.6 million tons of solid waste, with scrap paper, plastics and metal taking up large shares, according to the MEP.
China’s War on Foreign Garbage
For more than 30 years, imports of recycled goods have fueled China’s manufacturing boom. On Wednesday, the government announced that it’d had enough. By the end of the year, it told the World Trade Organization, it would stop accepting most recycled plastics, paper, textiles and other products from overseas. The decision, it said, was part of a campaign against “foreign garbage” that harms public health and the environment.
It’s a crowd-pleasing stand. But far from solving China’s environmental problems, this crackdown will actually worsen them — and do so at the expense of jobs and economic growth around the world.
The rhetoric itself is nothing new. China’s government has long played up stories about foreign waste, partly to deflect attention from unmanageable garbage problems at home. But it has also encouraged the import of scrap recyclables since the 1980s. Importing scrap plastics and paper is cheaper, quicker, and easier than drilling oil wells and cutting down trees. It’s also cleaner: Recycling 1 ton of paper saves enough energy to power the average American home for six months, while using recycled material to produce plastic reduces the energy required by as much as 87 percent.
That’s why nearly 180 million tons of recyclables worth $87 billion were traded globally in 2015. Hay-bale-sized bundles of plastics recovered from U.S. recycling bins might look like “foreign garbage” to the untrained eye. But for savvy importers, they’re as good as barrels of oil.
Nowhere is that more appreciated than in China, for two decades the world’s biggest importer of recycled material. China’s recycling industry grew in parallel with its manufacturing boom. By the mid-2000s, scrap paper was among the leading U.S. exports to China by volume. Much of that paper went round trip — it started as packaging for goods made in China, then was shipped to the U.S., discarded into bins, and exported back to China for recycling. By some estimates, China’s paper recycling rate could be as high as 70 percent if all those returned exports are added in. Foreign garbage is really just China’s recycling coming home.
That’s a good thing for everyone involved. Americans are good recyclers, but they’re even better consumers, and on average roughly one-third of the stuff that’s tossed into U.S. recycling bins can’t be made into new products domestically, because there’s too much of it. Before China’s market opened, that meant that lots of otherwise recyclable waste had nowhere to go. Since China’s opening, public and private recycling operations have flourished across the U.S., helping keep waste out of landfills and putting lots of people to work. According to one industry study, scrap exports support more than 40,000 American jobs. In China, the number is multiples larger.
The industry isn’t perfect, of course. I’ve seen recycled plastics imported from the U.S. covered in rotten food that poses a health risk to the folks who process it, and bales of paper stuffed with cinder blocks to make them heavier and thus more valuable. Unscrupulous traders sometimes label shipments of hazardous medical waste as recycling to save on disposal costs. China’s many small-scale recyclers are known to flout regulations. But the Chinese government has rightly cracked down on this sort of thing in recent years, and helped clean up the worst abuses. The quality of the recycling China imports today is better than ever.
If the goal is to improve the environment and public health, then, the ban on foreign garbage is counterproductive. For all the problems with imported recyclables, those generated in China are far dirtier — which is why Chinese recyclers want to continue importing foreign garbage. Cut off the imports and many of them will shut down, while much of the 7 million metric tons of plastic and 29 million metric tons of paper that China imports annually will end up in dumps and incinerators in other countries. And that would really be a waste.
By Adam Minter