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China's waste import ban that came into force Jan. 1 has caused panic in waste-exporting countries and will serve as a wake-up call to and a game changer for them. The measure, announced in July, prohibits the entry of 24 types of solid waste grouped into four categories: domestic plastics, unsorted paper, various types of mine slag and textile waste.
For China, the announcement is a natural result from both a shifting growth model and the implementation of its ambitious development plan. China has decided to shift its growth model by putting quality and green development above high-quantity and speedy development. The Chinese Government is stepping up the fight against pollution and environmental degradation as decades of double-digit growth have left the country saddled with smog and contaminated soil. A central inspection team has been sent across the country to oversee any damage caused by illegally discharged pollutants and to hold local governments accountable for any environmental protection irregularities. Addressing environmental governance at an unprecedented level, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has incorporated “Beautiful China” into its two-stage development plan for building a great modern socialist country, according to the report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the CPC in October.
China started to import solid waste as raw materials to make up for the domestic shortage of resources in the 1980s and has been the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials. In 2016, it imported 7.3 million tons of waste plastics, valued at US$3.7 billion, accounting for 56 percent of world imports from developed countries, including the United States, the U.K., the EU and Japan, according to a Reuters report. The U.S. exported about one-third of its recycling, and nearly half went to China. Britain shipped around two-thirds of its garbage to China for recycling, approximately 500,000 tons each year. Unfortunately some Chinese companies illegally smuggled foreign garbage for profit, and the imported waste was mixed with many nonrecyclable materials, which cause severe damage to the environment and public health.
China’s ban has sent shock waves in these major garbage-exporting countries. In the U.K., the ban is already causing a buildup of rubbish at recycling plants around the country and will bring chaos for councils, according to a Guardian report Jan. 2. “We have relied on exporting plastic recycling to China for 20 years and now people do not know what is going to happen,” Simon Ellin, chief executive of the U.K. Recycling Association, moaned. U.S. recycling companies are also scrambling to adapt. Laura Leebrick, an employee of Rogue Waste Systems, a recycling company in southern Oregon, says that with China’s import ban, orphaned recycling bales are stacked in the warehouse, and employee parking spaces have been taken over by compressed cubes of sour cream containers, broken wine bottles and junk mail.
So where could all this waste go? Incineration and landfilling? Rogue Waste says it has to take all of this recycling to the local landfill, and more than a dozen Oregon companies have applied to send recyclable materials to landfills. U.K. officials said hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic plastic could be burnt in Britain.
Landfilling plastics has long been thought to be environmentally benign because plastics are chemically inert, but more recent analysis has shown some additives to plastic can migrate into water that percolates in soil. Plastics also consume a disproportionate amount of landfill space because they do not degrade and shrink like other waste.
And incineration also poses a problem. Greenpeace said in a BBC report incinerating plastic was “the wrong answer.” It’s a high-carbon nonrenewable form of generating electricity. It’s also one that creates toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Scientists have warned that even when the chemicals are captured by industrial incinerators, there remains a risk to the environment and potentially human health.
Then do people have to sit back and watch what’s going on out there? Or they just scramble to find another niche for these materials and to soothe their panicked mind without doing anything to upgrade the industries?
A scenario is that China is to blame for breeding such an indolent international group, and it’s interesting to note that Philadelphia-based magazine Environment even says China’s import ban “seems to be an endorsement of protectionist trade policies.” Fortunately Environment is rather alone. More people see the predicament as an opportunity and a silver lining. Adina Adler, a senior director with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, says China’s move is probably ushering in a new era of recycling. Simon Ellin says if there is the political will this could be an opportunity in the medium term. For Greenpeace, the ban will send warnings other than shock waves around the world and promote the search for methods to generate less waste and to treat them adequately in the country of origin just as within China.
Politicians and businesspeople should not sit idle with arms crossed. It’s time for them to drop the “Out of sight, out of mind” stance and rack their brains to work out innovative plans for self-salvaging and the common good.
(The author is the executive deputy editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily.)