China began importing waste as early as the 1980’s to deal with a shortage of raw materials. However, over the years it has gradually became the “dump of the world”. Local recyclers annually import an average of 8 million tons of waste including dangerous substances.
Whereas waste is valuable to some extent, the recycling process has to be properly controlled to avoid massive environmental pollution. Pollution observed in China for many years and which is today one of the government’s top priorities.
Recycling industry under scrutiny
The ministry of environmental protection led an investigation in July 2017, with a result of 65 % of the recycling factories (over 1162 inspection) guilty of environmental violations. Chinese authorities have been aware of this issue for years. A first step was taken in 2013 with the “Green Fence” operation. It aimed at reinforcing the inspections on containers of imported waste. Indeed China informed in its filing to WTO that a “large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste”.
The beginning of a new era
This year China took a step further on 18th of July by announcing a policy modification on its “ban for import list” . This measure followed the creation in April of a working group for the improvement of management of solid waste imports, led by President Xi JinPing himself.
This update will forbid 24 new categories of waste from entering China by December 2017. It includes: daily use plastic , non-sorted contaminated paper waste, textile waste used or un-used and vanadium slag waste*(full list). Waste shipped after August 31st should already comply with the new standard. The policy will gradually strengthen until 2019, banning the importation of other waste for which resources can be found domestically. In the meantime the government will reinforce the crackdown on foreign waste smuggling that has been worsening over the years.
Western waste exporters are worried
This move from China to ban importation of waste is soon likely to disrupt the 86.5 billion dollar recycling industry. It shall have a direct effect on the trade flows, as price of recycling activities rise up. The shipping companies notably, offer very competitive discounts on shipment to China to avoid returning empty containers. This dynamic enables to ship waste for a very low price. Adam Minter’s book in his book Junkyard Planet demonstrates that it would be more expenses to ship waste from Los Angeles to Chicago than to China.
The restrictions on impurity threshold are also a topic of concern for the recycling industry. It drops as low as 0.3% on “carried waste”. Which is neither achievable nor measurable according to the institute of the Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and would lead to the ban of the import of this kind of commodities. Requirement on minimal recyclable content in the metal and electrical appliance will also strengthen to 80% of the total weight. This is much higher that the American standard currently at 50%.
A step towards a more responsible future
So far we are still waiting for the full enforcement of this policy but this is already a wake up call for the all-recycling industry. It is advocating for more ethics and responsibility in the waste recycling industry. Every actor of the supply chain should make efforts in reducing the amount of waste produce and tracing their recycling chain.