China Is Expanding Waste Bans and It's Going to Get Messy in the Recycling Bin

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Piles of garbage

Nobody wants our waste. Maybe we should stop making it?

TreeHugger has always been somewhat dubious about recycling, preferring re-use and zero waste. But after writing our post on China's ban on accepting plastic waste, Junkyard Planet author Adam Minter noted that instead, Chinese manufacturers were importing, digging or chopping for virgin materials to make up for the loss of supply. "As someone who has visited some of the worst recycling sites in the world, including in China, I can say without reservation that the worst recycling is still better than the best open pit mine, forest clear cut, or oil field."

Now Minter points to an article in Sixth Tone that suggests the situation might only get worse as China clamps down on even more forms of waste.

Sixteen types of solid waste — including scrap metal, old ships, and slag produced from smelting — can no longer be imported after 2018, and another 16 types — including timber and stainless steel — cannot be imported beyond 2019.

The authors point out that China used the waste as raw materials for their expanding economy, and had the inexpensive labour needed to sort and clean the waste. Du Huanzheng, director of the Circular Economy Research Institute at Tongji University in Shanghai worries that it will hurt manufacturing and create new problems.

“This imported solid waste is not just garbage, but scrap materials that China’s manufacturing industry desperately needs,” Du told Sixth Tone. Because China lacks mineral resources, he added, imported waste is heavily relied on to supply factories with raw materials.

China has banned the solid waste imports because they claim that they “seriously endangered people’s physical health and the safety of our country’s ecological environment,” but it is creating new problems for everyone; in the West, there is nowhere to put all the waste, much of which came from China in the first place. In China, it probably means that they will be consuming a lot more virgin materials.

By 2020, China has vowed to phase out any imported waste that could be replaced by domestically available resources. But Du believes that extracting these resources can potentially raise greater environmental concerns than recycling....“Imported solid waste is a double-edged sword,” Du said. “On the one hand, it’s a matter of obtaining resources; on the other, it’s a matter of protecting the environment.”

The entire worldwide system of recycling is breaking down because China doesn't want to take contaminated and dirty plastic and fibre, much of which is single-use disposables. If they won't buy it then the municipalities can't sell it.

The answer, of course, is not to make it in the first place- to go zero waste. To have end-to-end producer responsibility. To stop this waste.