Che Zhongqing can tell you a thing or two about the price of rubbish. For more than 10 years she has collected waste paper, plastic and metals from households in northeast Beijing. She keeps the figures for different goods in different years in her head. 2016 was bad, she recalls, especially for paper. But the market has been much better this year since the start of a wide-ranging ban on the import of recyclables from overseas.
“Prices have almost doubled,” Che says, sitting in a discarded armchair under a shady tree. “There is a shortage now.”
A ‘shortage’ may be overstating it. China produces plenty of its own recyclable waste and the citizens of Beijing alone throw away six billion plastic drinks bottles a year, according the website China Environmental Protection.
Yet the six month-old ban has had a massive impact on China’s domestic recyclers by cutting off much of the incoming flow of rubbish. The reverberations are being felt throughout the global recycling supply chain too as countries try to figure out how to dispose of their own waste. Last week Douglas County in the US state of Oregon announced it was suspending its recycling programme because China was no longer taking its waste and the New York Times said thousands of tonnes of material designated for recycling was now going into landfill because the US doesn’t have the capacity to deal with it.
China began importing other nations’ waste in the 1980s as a way to earn money and source materials that could be reused. Today, however, it wants to move away from waste processing and the pollution that it can create.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping named environmental degradation as one of three key challenges facing his country in his keynote speech to the 19th Party Congress last year.
In a meeting on the environment in May he again urged an end to waste and irrational consumption. The goal is to build a “Beautiful China” by 2035, he said.
Last month the Environment Ministry announced the ban on imported waste would be extended to cover additional materials at the end of this year and in 2019.
The current list includes “daily use” plastics, unsorted paper, unwanted textiles and vanadium slag from steel production.
Waste timber, ethylene polymer waste, other types of smelting slag and scrap metals such stainless steel, tungsten and magnesium will be added to the list over the next two years.
Yet there is a large and often unregulated recycling industry that craves cheap raw materials. Given that other countries are now struggling to cope with the spillover of their own rubbish, it is unsurprising that some traders are violating the new rules and smuggling “foreign trash” into China.
Customs officials estimate some 930,000 tonnes of illegal waste has improperly arrived in China since the January ban took effect.
In three recent crackdowns they were able to recover 217,000 tonnes. Most of the smuggled trash was then incinerated in a public display that the online news channel Buyidao compared to the famous burning of British-traded opium at Humen in Guangdong in 1839.
“China is no longer a dumping ground for foreign waste,” warned Xinhua back in December.
The Global Times took up the same cause, fuming that it was “hypocritical of the of the West” to lecture countries like China about environmental protection while also expecting them to serve as a dumping ground for their own rubbish.
Customs officials say tackling the waste smugglers is as high a priority as preventing the trade in ivory or narcotics. But some experts have warned that the bans will deprive the waste industry of much-needed inputs – at least in the short term until China’s own waste sorting system improves.
Recyclers say foreign waste is better sorted and often of higher quality.
“If I could continue working on foreign waste, I wouldn’t work on domestic waste,” one businessman told the Global Times.
Perhaps for that reason alone, the ban is having some positive effects. Someone needs to collect and better sort the six billion water bottles in Beijing, after all.
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