China refuses 'foreign garbage,' leaving waste mountains in West

  1. China used to import over half the world's plastic waste
  2. Waste paper and plastic prices have crashed outside China
  3. Ban means recyclables could go to incineration or landfill instead

China’s refusal to import paper and plastic waste is turning a global trade on its head, forcing waste recyclers in the United Kingdom and the United States to bury, store or incinerate material and triggering a collapse in global prices for recyclable waste, outside China.

The largest importer of ‘yang laji’ or ‘foreign garbage,’ China has banned 24 kinds of solid waste from the start of this year. The problem is about to get worse, with new rules coming into effect on how much contamination is acceptable.

To put into scale just how much trash China imported, it took 55 percent of the UK’s exported recovered plastics in 2016 (WRAP). In recent years it’s taken nearly half of America’s exported plastic waste, and one-third of the European Union’s (EU) plastic waste exports (The Conversation).

Craig Curtis is the fourth-generation owner of UK recycling company Chas Storer Ltd (CS Recycling Ltd) in Potters Bar, North London. Trucks come onto his site with “rubbish,” a word Curtis dislikes, and weigh in. The waste is divided into categories – newspapers, shredded office papers, different types of plastics – and then made into bales. These are placed on trucks and the trucks are weighed. Curtis knows that the ban on certain categories of waste will affect his earnings.

In the 42 years he has worked there, he told WikiTribune, “This is the most significant thing that’s ever happened.”  He says,The Chinese have totally pulled the rug from underneath everything.” 

Material being sorted at Chas Storer recycling company (CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Craig Curtis)
Recycling being sorted at Chas Storer recycling company (CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Craig Curtis)

But this wasn’t a complete surprise. In July 2017, Beijing notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) it would stop importing 24 classes of plastic and paper from day one of 2018. (Financial Times) Last November China announced (Resource Recycling) that from March 1 it will only accept 0.5 percent contamination by other material in imported papers. While this is only one percentage point lower than the global norm (Resource Recycling), Curtis says achieving this is “really hard, very expensive, and then you get less money for the material.” It has the same as effect banning the import of many types of mixed paper.

China’s new paper-contamination rules, effective March 1, will be “very challenging” for the US,  according to David Biderman, CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). “I don’t think that the majority of domestic recycling facilities in the United States can satisfy it,” he told WikiTribune. “On the west coast and in the northeast United States, material is being stockpiled. There are warehouses in parking lots with bales of material as companies wait for the markets.”

Back at Potters Bar, Curtis says the January ban has already caused an oversupply of waste. Before China notified the WTO, many plastics were worth about five times their current value and cardboard roughly twice. “The very best quality plastics, might have been £400 a tonne, and that’s now £150,” he says.

Beautiful China

China had previously recycled the Western world’s trash, turning it into the many household goods it exports: products as wide ranging as fridges, fleeces and printers – along with the packaging they come in. The West has such a large trade deficit with China that container ships often return empty to China, making it cost-effective for recycling companies to ship waste on the trip home (CNN). Curtis says to get a “lorry [truck] to go from here to Manchester [North England], costs us the same as it does to get a shipping container from here to China.”

With US exports of scrap plastics worth almost $400m in 2016 (The Conversation), why did China decide to make these changes? President Xi Jinping pledged a “Beautiful China” during his 2017 speech at the party congress. (The Guardian) In its WTO filing, Beijing declared it would no longer accept large amounts of mixed-in hazardous waste.

Author of Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter, says a ban could actually add to China’s environmental problems. Writing in Bloomberg, he explained that imported recyclables are cleaner than China’s own waste. So banning imports may force many Chinese recyclers to shut down, meaning the 7 million tons of plastic and 29 million tons of paper China imports annually being burned or dumped.

Simon Ellin, CEO of the United Kingdom’s Recycling Association, says the industry is at a “very, very serious point” which could have been avoided if the UK had negotiated with China to reconsidering taking our recyclables. Environment Secretary Michael Gove was asked in November, eight weeks before China’s ban, what effect it would have on the UK, to which he replied: “I don’t know what impact it will have…And to be honest, I haven’t given it sufficient thought.” (The Recycling Association)

Junior environment minister, Thérèse Coffey, told the Environmental Audit Committee the issue wasn’t a “crisis” (Letsrecycle) and that other countries such as Turkey would take the UK’s waste instead.

Plastic not so fantastic

Emmanuel Katrakis, secretary-general of EURIC, the main organisation representing EU recycling industries, says alternatives like Vietnam and Malaysia have marginal capacity to replace China. There had also been little time to plan new recycling plants.

Meanwhile, the European Commission acted by adopting a new set of measures in its Circular Economy Action Plan in January 2018 (European Commission Europa). Ellin advises the UK do the same. The plan calls for for material to be produced, consumed and recycled within the EU. It also includes a binding target of recycling 55 percent of plastic packaging by 2030, up from 30 percent today. (Financial Times)

Even if China’s waste ban and contamination rules don’t result in recycling companies sending their waste to incineration or landfill, Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner, Eleana Polisano, says shipping plastic waste to China isn’t good enough anyway. A truckload of plastic enters the ocean every minute (Greenpeace) . “Plastic is a nearly indestructible material…What you need to do is make less of it in the first place,” she says. Driven in part by public concern after a BBC documentary called Blue Planet, Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042, but Polisano says “that’s nowhere near urgent enough.”
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