Wang Jiuliang has made a reputation for himself as a producer of documentaries: his films are some of the quickest to go viral in social media but also the first to be purged by Chinese censors.
Take Plastic Kingdom, a 2014 documentary that traces how waste plastic from around the world is shipped to China for recycling. Footage again went viral on the internet last month after it was screened at a Taiwanese film festival (and in customary fashion, it was soon blocked by mainland censors).
Plastic Kingdom includes scenes of the appalling conditions experienced by thousands of Chinese families at the lowest end of the recycling chain. So you might think that the authorities would point to Wang’s work in support of new curbs on waste imports from overseas.
In fact, the central government has already started to clamp down on the pollution that comes with trash recycling, notifying the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that it will ban the import of 24 types of waste including plastic, unsorted scrap paper and discarded textiles. The embargo will come into force by the end of this year.
As is well known China has been exporting shiploads of consumer goods to developed economies for years. Less publicised is that many of the container ships come back stuffed with solid waste.
Last year the country imported 45 million tonnes of trash for recycling, but the trade now looks like it will be seriously disrupted. Warnings of the dire consequences – now being made by the world’s biggest traders of trash – are rippling around the globe.
The Chinese government told the WTO that large amounts of hazardous material are mixed with the solid waste, exposing China to serious environmental pollution. That makes it difficult for the trash dealers to directly oppose the ban, although they are making their feelings known about the suddenness of its imposition.
“We respect what the Chinese government is trying to do… and we want to be helpful, but they gave us practically no time for any kind of transition,” Adina Adler, an official at the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, complained to CNN.
According to Sina Finance, further concerns were expressed at a WTO meeting this week. “The US [representatives] were the first to speak out because the ban involves a market that is worth several billion dollars and the interests of many American firms,” Sina wrote.
International shipping firm Maersk told Reuters last month that it is already seeing a drop in waste flows to China, although it is too early to understand the full impact. Hong Kong, the largest exporter of used plastic to mainland China, is also preparing for the worst. Most of its trash isn’t generated locally but imported from overseas by waste traders.
Nonetheless, there are thousands of elderly Hongkongers who collect scrap cardboard and sell it to the recyclers, contributing to about 80,000 tonnes of wastepaper gathered each month from the city for export to Guangdong. These collectors are feeling the pinch, however, after the city’s trash recycling firms held a weeklong strike last month in protest at the ban. This resulted in huge pile-ups of wastepaper at export depots, and a refusal to buy more, hitting elderly collectors’ incomes.
The recycling industry is now waiting to see how effectively the ban is implemented. In 2013, under a crackdown known as Operation Green Fence, the Chinese government tried to reduce imports of foreign waste, but inflows continued to rise. Beijing News says the context is different this time: Operation Green Fence was targeting the lowest-quality foreign trash, while this year’s ban is determined to reduce the overall quantity of imported waste.
So what happens next? Because so much of the world’s plastic recycling is carried out in China (and nowhere else has the capacity to take up the slack), the policy changes are likely to lead to huge backlogs of waste closer to source.
That may mean piles of unwanted rubbish in towns and cities near you.
Keeping track, Jan 19, 2018: Sure enough, the New York Times reported this week that the ban has started to bite. It visited a waste disposal site in London which has already run out of space owing to a build up of plastic recyclables. “Similar backups have been reported in Canada, Ireland, Germany and several other European nations, while tonnes of rubbish is piling up in port cities like Hong Kong,” the newspaper reported. Steve Frank, of Pioneer Recycling in Oregon, owns two plants that collect and sort 220,000 tonnes of recyclable materials each year. A majority of it was till recently exported to China to be processed. “My inventory is out of control,” he told the newspaper, adding China’s ban has caused “a major upset of the flow of global recyclables”. China recycled about half the globe’s plastic and paper waste last year but the new ban means Western countries may have to look to other options such as local incineration or landfill, reckons the New Yorks Times. China, on the other hand, has said the vast quantities of imported waste were damaging its environment.
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