China’s waste import ban upends global recycling industry
China’s waste import ban upends global recycling industry
The decision was announced in July and came into force on Jan. 1, giving companies from Europe to the US barely six months to look for other options, and forcing some to store rubbish in parking lots.
In China, some recycling companies have had to lay off staff or shut down because of the lost business.
The ban bars imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles.
“Large amounts of dirty ... or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously,” the environment ministry explained in a notice to the World Trade Organization.
In 2015 alone, the Asian giant bought 49.6 million tons of rubbish, according to the latest government figures.
The EU exports half of its collected and sorted plastics, 85 percent of which goes to China. Ireland alone exported 95 percent of its plastic waste to China in 2016.
That same year, the US shipped more than 16 million tons of scrap commodities to China worth more than $5.2 billion.
The ban has been like an “earthquake” for countries dependent on China, said Arnaud Brunet, head of the Bureau of International Recycling.
“It has put our industry under stress since China is simply the largest market in the world” for recycled materials, he told AFP, noting that he expected exports of certain materials to tank by 40 percent or more.
Global plastic exports to China could sink from 7.4 million tons in 2016 to 1.5 million tons in 2018, while paper exports might tumble nearly a quarter, according to Brunet’s estimate.
The decrease will be partly due to a fall in the threshold of impurities China is willing to accept per ton of waste — higher standards that most countries currently cannot meet.
Some are now looking at emerging markets elsewhere such as India, Pakistan or Southeast Asia, but it could be more expensive than shipping waste to China.
Sending recyclables to China is cheaper because they are placed on ships that would “otherwise be empty” when they return to the Asian country after delivering consumer goods in Europe, said Simon Ellin, CEO of the Britain-based Recycling Association.
Brunet also warned that many alternate countries may not yet be up to the task of filling China’s enormous shoes, since “processing capacity doesn’t develop overnight.”
The ban risks causing a “catastrophic” environmental problem as backlogs of recyclable waste are instead incinerated or dumped in landfills with other refuse.
In the US, collectors of recyclables are already reporting “significant stockpiles” of materials, said Adina Renee Adler, senior director of international relations at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
“Some municipalities have announced that they will either not take certain materials or direct them to landfills,” she said.
Brandon Wright, a spokesman for the US National Waste and Recycling Association, told AFP that some facilities were storing inventory outside or in parking lots.
The ban has also created challenges for Chinese companies dependent on foreign waste.
“It will be very hard to do business,” said Zhang Jinglian, owner of the Huizhou Qinchun plastic recycling company in southern Guangdong province.
More than half their plastics were imported, and as prices for such raw materials go up, production will be reduced by at least a third, he said. He had already let go a dozen employees.
Others, such as Nantong Heju Plastic Recycling in coastal Jiangsu province, will “no longer do business” at all, a representative said.
But at the same time, the ban could jolt China into improving its own patchy recycling systems, allowing it to reuse more local materials, said Greenpeace plastics expert Liu Hua.
“In China at the moment, there isn’t a complete, legal and regulated recycling system in place,” he said, with even big cities such as Beijing reliant on illegal scavengers.
“When there aren’t resources coming from abroad, there’s a greater likelihood of us improving our own internal recycling.”
In Europe, the ban could also have the positive effect of prompting countries to focus on developing domestic recycling industries, said Jean-Marc Boursier, president of the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services.
“The Chinese decision forces us to ask ourselves whether we wouldn’t be interested in making processing plants in Europe so as to export products rather than waste,” he said.
On Tuesday, the EU unveiled plans to phase out single-use plastics such as coffee cups and make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030.
Merkel seeks united front with China amid Trump trade fears
- Merkel seeks common ground to ward off trade war
- Plans complicated by US policy moves
Chancellor Angela Merkel visits China on Thursday, seeking to close ranks with the world’s biggest exporting nation as US President Donald Trump shakes up explosive issues from trade to Iran’s nuclear deal.
Finding a common strategy to ward off a trade war and keep markets open will be Merkel’s priority when she meets with President Xi Jinping, as Washington brandishes the threat of imposing punitive tariffs on aluminum and steel imports.
“Both countries are in agreement that open markets and rules-based world trade are necessary. That’s the main focus of this trip,” Merkel’s spokeswoman Martina Fietz said in Berlin on Friday.
But closing ranks with Beijing against Washington risks being complicated by Saturday’s deal between China and the US to hold off tit-for-tat trade measures.
China’s economic health can only benefit Germany as the Asian giant is a big buyer of Made in Germany. But a deal between the US and China effectively leaves Berlin as the main target of Trump’s campaign against foreign imports that he claims harm US national security.
The US leader had already singled Germany out for criticism, saying it had “taken advantage” of the US by spending less than Washington on NATO.
Underlining what is at stake, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire warned the US-China deal may come “at the expense of Europe if Europe is not capable of showing a firm hand.”
Nevertheless, Merkel can look to her carefully nurtured relationship with China over her 12 years as chancellor.
No Western leader has visited Beijing as often as Merkel, who will be undertaking her eleventh trip to the country.
In China, she is viewed not only as the main point of contact for Europe, but, crucially, also as a reliable interlocutor — an antithesis of the mercurial Trump.
Devoting her weekly podcast to her visit, Merkel stressed that Beijing and Berlin “are both committed to the rules of the WTO” (World Trade Organization) and want to “strengthen multilateralism.”
But she also underlined that she will press home Germany’s longstanding quest for reciprocity in market access as well as the respect of intellectual property.
Ahead of her visit, Beijing fired off a rare salvo of criticism.
China’s envoy to Germany, Shi Mingde, pointed to a “protectionist trend in Germany,” as he complained about toughened rules protecting German companies from foreign takeovers.
Only 0.3 percent of foreign investors in Germany stem from China while German firms have put in €80 billion in the Asian giant over the last three decades, he told Stuttgarter Nachrichten.
“Economic exchange cannot work as a one-way street,” he warned.
Meanwhile, looming over the battle on the trade front is another equally thorny issue — the historic Iran nuclear deal, which risks falling apart after Trump pulled the US out.
Tehran has demanded that Europe keeps the deal going by continuing economic cooperation, but the US has warned European firms of sanctions if they fail to pull out of Iran.
Merkel “hopes that China can help save the atomic deal that the US has unilaterally ditched,” said Die Welt daily.
“Because only the giant emerging economy can buy enough raw materials from Iran to give the Mullah regime an incentive to at least officially continue to not build a nuclear weapon.”