Environment |Report

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

Talk (12)

FP

Fernando Portela

"Thanks for the pointer Jimmy, appreci..."
CS

Cheryl Stephens

"It has been established by the brain ..."
JW

Jimmy Wales

"I agree 100% on Greenpeace as a sourc..."
PM

Paul Merriam

"Re-reading this has made me understan..."

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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United Kingdom
Harry is one of the journalists at WikiTribune. He is a masters graduand from Cardiff University, with a diploma in Magazine Journalism. He has an interest in politics and science, having previously studied Geography at Aberystwyth University. Follow Harry on Twitter @harryridgewell

History for stories "China refuses ‘foreign garbage,’ leaving waste mountains in West"

Select two items to compare revisions

04 March 2018

03:31:49, 04 Mar 2018 . .‎ Brandon Cote (Updated → grammar correction in title)

03 March 2018

07:25:33, 03 Mar 2018 . .‎ Cheryl Stephens (Updated → copyedit)
07:04:16, 03 Mar 2018 . .‎ Cheryl Stephens (Updated → enforcing parallelism in verb form: turning, forcing, and triggering)
07:02:54, 03 Mar 2018 . .‎ Cheryl Stephens (Updated → Changing title for accuracy)

02 March 2018

12:43:24, 02 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → update)
11:23:15, 02 Mar 2018 . .‎ Emma Curtis (Updated → Update CS to CS Recycling Ltd)

01 March 2018

23:13:52, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → edit)
23:03:33, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → edit)
16:28:51, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → minor style)
15:43:47, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → fixing presentation)
15:42:32, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → fix formatting)
15:34:41, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → minor)
15:30:11, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → tweaks)
15:15:15, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Edited)
15:13:31, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Removed hero)
15:12:56, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Edited and published, PGB)
13:29:17, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → update)
13:23:16, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → update)
13:16:34, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → update)
12:49:05, 01 Mar 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → update)

28 February 2018

18:05:39, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Pending)
17:55:40, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → My version adopted)
17:55:05, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → HOLD for major revision)
17:15:48, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → author author)
17:14:43, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → million)
17:12:34, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → U.K.)
17:09:53, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → highlights)
17:07:14, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → saving after another conflict)
17:05:43, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → saving)
16:58:46, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → minor)
16:57:03, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → saving)
16:52:57, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → headline shortened)
16:52:44, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → headline shortened)
16:51:58, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → minor edit)
16:48:09, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Harry Ridgewell (Updated → suggested changes)
16:11:04, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → save)
16:06:32, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → tightening)
15:50:11, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → save latest)
15:06:11, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → SAVING)
14:56:32, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → china daily link)
14:49:41, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → saving)
14:41:15, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → moving paras)
12:41:22, 28 Feb 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → links)

Talk for Story "China refuses ‘foreign garbage,’ leaving waste mountains in West"

Talk about this Story

  1. Other

    I do not trust Greenpace as a source. The numbers they cite on the page you linked might be factual (or even underestimated), but I wish they would cite their own sources.

    Other than that, I disagree with Cheryl about the length of the article. It felt like the right ‘dosage’ for me. I guess this might be a matter of taste, but on important topics like this one, I’d rather read an ‘explainer’ (lengthier article) than a ‘brief’.

    1. Rewrite

      I agree 100% on Greenpeace as a source.

      Here’s another source, probably where Greenpeace got their soundbite:
      http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf

      1. Rewrite

        Thanks for the pointer Jimmy, appreciated.

  2. Rewrite

    The article does not make clear (or emphasize) the difference between the regulations that came into effect January 1 and March 1. And it is confusing to talk about a ban and then about a quality standard.

    And this is too long, one cannot stay engaged with it–at least I could not.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Cheryl. I believe editor Peter Bale is making it a bit shorter so I hope this helps.

  3. Rewrite

    This becomes nonsensical–if the materials are now banned, why would they be imported and need to be burned? And explain the significance of imports being clean vs China’s waste not.

    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, and banning them will 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.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Cheryl. I think you may have confused two things. China is not importing banned materials then burning them as far as I’m aware. Adam Minter argued that the ban would lead to Chinese recyclers shutting down and burning their own materials. Also, some other recycling experts separately argued the ban would result in their own material, that they would have sent to china where it would have been recycled pre ban, being incinerated elsewhere.

      1. Rewrite

        Re-reading this has made me understand it; however, I was as confused as Cheryl. Indeed, I quit reading the article because it struck me as self-contradictory.
        I suggest you break Adam Mintner’s argument into two or three sentences.

  4. Rewrite

    Numbers should be reported in the same style within a sentence or paragraph, so this should be changed by someone who knows the facts:
    ,…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…

    55%
    half
    one-third

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Cheryl. I think the reason me and subsequent editors decided on varying the style was to make it less repetitive and because remembering whether various statistics were a third or half is easier than remembering some stats were 36%, 54% etc

      1. Rewrite

        It has been established by the brain researchers that it is easier for readers to process the information if numbers are expressed in the same formats. It is not about remembering or memory; it is about the initial processing of the numbers for understanding and comparison.

        Varying the style is a literary approach that does not apply to information sharing.

  5. Other

    I think it will take a big change in society to really fix this problem.

    So many products are now effectively disposable, instead of being something you might buy once or twice in a lifetime. I don’t just mean carrier bags, but items such as furniture.

    Of course, things that last also need some repairs and maintenance, and for that you need a lot of people with hands-on skills. Today, it can be quite a job to find someone who can repair something.

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