In 2016 China imported more than half the world’s exports of scrap copper and waste paper, and half of its used plastic. China spent over $18bn on imports of rubbish in 2016. America, meanwhile, is an eager supplier. In 2016 nearly 25% of USA’s biggest exporters by volume were recyclers of paper, plastic or metal. Chung Nam, a California-based supplier of waste paper exported 333,900 containers, almost all of them to China!
However, this is likely to change. On July 18th 2017 China told the World Trade Organisation that by the end of the year, it will no longer accept imports of 24 categories of solid waste as part of a government campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage”. Restricting such imports will protect the environment and improve public health. But the proposed import ban will disrupt billions of dollars in trade.
Imports of rubbish have helped supply China’s demand for raw materials. It is often cheaper to recycle scrap copper, iron and steel, as well as waste paper and plastic, than to make such materials from scratch, especially when commodity prices are high. As commodity prices rose during the 2000s, the trade in waste benefited both exporters, who made money from previously worthless trash, and importers, who gained access to a reliable stream of precious raw materials. Between 1995 and 2016 Chinese imports of waste grew tenfold, from 4.5m to 45m tonnes.
But imports of recyclable waste are often dirty, poorly sorted or contaminated with hazardous substances such as lead or mercury. In 1996 factories in Xinjiang inadvertently imported more than 100 tonnes of radioactive metal from Kazakhstan.
Officials may have been spurred into the latest restrictions by the release of Plastic China, a documentary about the plastic-recycling industry which was screened at Sundance, a grand American film festival, in January.
The Chinese government has been trying to cut down on the import of waste materials since 2013 with Operation Green Fence. Officials have increased and intensified up inspections of scrap metal for circuit boards, plastic for syringes and other medical waste, and waste paper for plastic or wood. Since then, China’s imports of waste have fallen sharply.
However, the government’s attempts to protect Chinese workers and the environment may result in up to $5bn in lost trade. Some critics claim that most of the waste consumed by China’s recycling industry comes from domestic sources, not imports.
Importers of the world’s waste
Destination of the EU’s plastic waste exports