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Denise van der Kamp
China’s announcement in July 2017 of a ban on waste imports sent shockwaves through the global recycling industry. Until 2017, China and Hong Kong had imported an estimated 70 per cent of the world’s plastic and electronic waste, and 37 per cent of the world’s paper waste. Now they were pledging to raise import standards to a level where virtually all waste imports would be banned.
The ban was not unprecedented. In prior years, China had ramped up import standards to curtail the shipment of low-quality scrap materials that often get mixed into the trade of processed, recyclable waste. The country has made a profitable business of converting waste into products such as fibre for textiles, or plastic sheet for plastic containers. But only a portion of the waste that China imports is suitable for processing, with the remaining scrap adding an estimated 10–13 per cent to China’s overtaxed waste stream.
Tired of acting as the world’s garbage dump, Beijing launched the ‘Green Fence’ campaign in 2012, sending inspectors to ports to screen out and turn back shipments of contaminated waste. Importers caught violating standards had their licences suspended, leading to a sharp decline in waste imports. But by 2014, waste imports began to climb back to previous levels as enforcement measures eased and the government turned its attention and resources to other environmental priorities.
Under a new ban on solid waste imports that will take effect on 31 December 2018, standards have become even stricter, but the same question remains: can the government effectively enforce the waste ban in the long-term?
Beijing is under pressure from both exporting countries and its own recycling industry to ease the ban. Even some environmental advocates oppose the ban, pointing out that the loss of recyclable raw materials in Chinese markets has pushed up demand for virgin raw materials, which require far more energy to produce.
Historically, the waste import business has also been riddled with enforcement weaknesses that are exploited by traders who smuggle unsorted plastics into China under false customs declarations, or import companies that repeatedly violate standards. In a country where the legal system lacks teeth, stricter standards do not guarantee stronger enforcement.
A total waste ban would be easier to enforce. After all, it is easier to stop entire shipments from entering the ports than to ensure that customs officials systematically inspect and sort all incoming materials according to the new standards. But the latest government notices suggest that the ban will be selective and continue to allow in higher quality waste materials. This reintroduces the risk of importers smuggling in low-end or contaminated recyclables alongside the higher quality items.
Still, there are two reasons to believe that the waste ban could be more successful this time around.
First, China’s consumers are now producing large enough quantities of waste to supply domestic industries with recyclable raw materials. Until now, a dependence on imported waste suppressed market demand for domestic recycling systems.
In early July 2018, the government announced a plan to develop a market-based system for recycling domestic waste by 2020, replacing an industry that has so far been dominated by informal collectors. It remains to be seen whether the government can get this system off the ground. Continued investments in waste incinerators— where waste is burned for energy instead of recycled — suggest that Beijing is hedging its bets.
Second, China is undergoing a nation-wide process of industrial restructuring. Driven by Beijing’s vision of an ‘upgraded’ economy built on cleaner, high-tech industries, local governments around the country are shutting down polluting factories en masse. The recycling industry — characterised by small-scale, low-technology firms operating at the margins — is a major target of restructuring measures, with widespread
shutdowns reported around the country.
At present, it is still unclear whether factory closures are temporary or enduring. But if factory closures in the recycling industry prove to be more permanent, then the demand for recyclable waste will decline, driving exporters to seek buyers elsewhere.
Whatever the outcome, China’s waste-processing industry will continue to cast a long shadow on the country’s environmental recovery. Decades of unregulated pollution have leached toxins into the land, leaving local governments with serious soil pollution problems. A new soil pollution law passed in 2018 stepped up fines and preventative measures. But new laws cannot easily redress past pollution violations, especially violations from a defunct or debt-ridden industry. The cost of clean-up will be immense, but the risk of protest and the social cost of non-action are also high.
Globally, environmental experts herald the waste ban as a ‘game changer’ that will force exporting countries to seek alternatives to outsourcing their waste. The European Union’s recent ban on single-use plastics suggests a move in a more sustainable direction.
But recent reports indicate that exporters have begun diverting waste shipments to Southeast Asia, taking advantage of the region’s growing recycling industries. Perhaps this is only a temporary trend, providing exporting countries a brief respite as they scramble for solutions to the waste rapidly accumulating within their borders. Or perhaps the West’s waste-exporting habits will endure, leading to the creation of a new Southeast Asian global dumping ground.

Denise van der Kamp is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong