China No Longer Wants Your Trash. Here’s Why That’s Potentially Disastrous.
On Jan. 1, China made good on its promise to close its borders to several types of imported waste. By the next day, panic had already taken hold in countries across Europe and North America as trash began piling up by the ton, with no one having a clue where to now dispose of it all.
For more than 20 years, China has been the world’s recycling bin, accepting an enormous quantity of recyclable waste from nations worldwide. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals. The U.S. exported 16 million tons of waste to China that year, worth about $5.2 billion. Britain sent China enough garbage to fill up 10,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
It has long been a mutually beneficial arrangement for China and the exporting countries eager to get rid of their mounting waste. But last year, China told the World Trade Organization that it was no longer interested in playing the role of global wastebasket. Beijing said that, beginning in 2018, it would be banning the imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including waste plastics, unsorted scrap paper and waste textiles. It was the most severe step China had taken since it began building its metaphorical “green fence” earlier this decade, which involved measures aimed at reducing the amount of “yang laji,” or foreign trash, that could arrive on its shores.
The ramifications of China’s recent ban has been described with language suggestive of a natural disaster. It has sent “shockwaves” worldwide, said Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Liu Hua. Arnaud Brunet, head of the Bureau of International Recycling, compared the ban to an “earthquake.”
Mere weeks after the ban took effect, waste management facilities in several countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Germany, are groaning under the weight of trash that no one seems to know what to do with. There’s “a mad scramble for alternative destinations or solutions” for all the waste that’s piling up, said Von Hernandez, global coordinator for the nonprofit Break Free From Plastic, speaking to HuffPost from the Philippines on Wednesday.
In the U.S., a recycler in Oregon told The New York Times this week that his inventory had gone “out of control” since the year began. China’s decision, he said, had caused “a major upset of the flow of global recyclables.”
Ireland has warned that its pile-up of garbage will soon “reach crisis levels” if an alternative destination for its trash is not found. The country sent 95 percent of its plastic waste to China in 2016, according to .
In Calgary, Canada, which had been sending half of its plastic waste and all of its mixed papers to China, the city’s waste manager described stockpiling thousands of tons of plastics and paper in empty storage sheds, shipping containers and trailers as officials figure out what to do with all the detritus. In Halifax, where 80 percent of recyclable waste had been sent to China, 300 metric tons of plastic bags and other plastic film products had to recently be buried in a landfill because the city has no more space to store it, reported the Times.
“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 Recycling Association in the U.K., told The Guardian, adding that plastic waste had already started to pile up in recyclers’ yards.
“A lot of [recycling organizations] are now sitting back and seeing what comes out of the woodwork, but people are very worried,” Ellin said.
Trash — specifically imported trash — has been, for many years, big business in China. From the 1980s, the country has eagerly accepted recyclable waste from countries worldwide to feed its flourishing manufacturing sector and satisfy the demands of a growing population.
“Right up to 2008, China was desperate for raw materials,” Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, told HuffPost in an interview last year. “They needed it for manufacturing, infrastructure, housing. They were really desperate.”
With an enormous and inexpensive labor force to tap into, it was cheaper in China to recycle scrap metals, as well as waste paper and plastic, than to make those materials from scratch. And countries like the U.S., Canada and Britain had more garbage than they knew what to do with, so they willingly sold their trash to China for cheap.
“Suddenly, there was such a huge demand for stuff that was hard to recycle in places like the U.S.,” said Minter, who lived in Shanghai for over a decade starting in 2001. “In China, they had the labor to sort through this stuff and take it apart.”
Minter gave the example of electric motors, particularly those found in large machinery. Scrapyards in the U.S. didn’t know what to do with them, he said, despite the motors containing valuable recyclable materials like copper wiring.
“The problem is, it’s really hard to crack open the steel case. The labor to do it is too expensive,” said Minter, whose family has operated a scrap business in Minnesota for several generations. “These motors piled up in scrapyards and you’d have to pay people to take it off your hands. But that all changed in the 1990s when China began buying these motors for a few cents per pound.”
Minter, who now lives in Malaysia and writes for Bloomberg, recalled walking into a recycling facility in southern China in 2002 and seeing “an ocean of electric motors” there.
“I was absolutely floored,” he said. “There were motors in one corner, cases in another and piles and piles of pure, beautiful cooper. Every part of the motor was being recycled. They’d figured out how to leverage the labor and they had a market for it. Enormous fortunes were made, hundreds of millions of dollars made from electric motors. That was a real ‘aha’ moment for me.”
China, said Minter, was accepting all sorts of recyclables at the time. “China would buy anything and everything, I’m not exaggerating,” he said. And the exporting countries happily contributed, sending shiploads full of waste to China every year.
The U.S. currently exports about one-third of all its recycling, and almost 50 percent of that has been going to China, according to NPR. In 2016, China imported a total of 45 million tons (or about $18 billion worth) of scrap metal, waste paper and plastic from countries across the globe.
But last July, China made a bold announcement, notifying the WTO that out of concern for the environment and public health, it would be restricting the imports of certain categories of solid waste.
“Large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” Beijing said, explaining its decision. “This polluted China’s environment seriously.”
The move has been characterized as sudden by some media, but China has in fact been signaling its desire to ditch its “world’s recycler” reputation for quite some time. In 2013, the government launched a campaign dubbed Operation Green Fence, which sought to block imports of illegal and low-quality waste. As Minter put it, China made clear that it “didn’t want to buy everything anymore, they only wanted to buy the good stuff.” A follow-up initiative called National Sword, which saw customs officials cracking down on such imports, was introduced last year.