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China rethinks foreign trash

November 4, 2017

For years, industrial nations have exported their garbage to China. But Beijing wants to put an end to this: The country has its own problematic waste, DW's Frank Sieren writes.

China Müllverbrennung
Image: picture alliance/dpa/Dong Mu

There was a time when Chinese rock musicians and fans loved the fact that much of the world's garbage landed in their dumps. Fully wrapped and undamaged cassettes and CDs by forbidden bands such as the Rolling Stones and U2 would end up being shipped to China on huge container ships for recycling. The albums were then sold in underground record stores, helping the country's rock subculture flourish.

At the same time, the money made from processing the nonmusical waste contributed significantly to the flourishing of China's economy.

Frank Sieren
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl

But those days are over. Everyone listens to music online now. And China no longer wants to buy all the world's garbage.

The world's waste

China has been the biggest worldwide importer of garbage since the early 1990s. The country pays for the waste in order to recuperate copper, iron, paper, plastics and other valuable materials — it is often less costly and time-consuming to recycle these than to produce them. For example, 60 percent less energy is used when recycling steel than when making it from iron ore.

For a long time, China was only able to produce poor quality goods from the raw materials that it had access to. Therefore, it made sense to recycle better quality materials. It was a win-win situation for both China and the rest of the world. The global garbage business is now worth billions. Over 50 percent of the world's waste goes to China for recycling, only to return to the industrialized world in the form of goods. Last year, China imported 7.3 million tons of plastic worth $3.7 billion.

In July, China's government announced to the World Trade Organization that it would ban the import of 24 categories of waste by the end of the year. That covers certain metals; electronic items; plastics such as PET, PVC, polyethylene, ashes, wool and cotton waste; mixed paper; and slag from manufacture of steel. Officials had determined that all this "yang laji" — foreign garbage — had had a negative impact on China's environment.

German trash en route to China
Used up in Germany, monitors go to China, where their toxic elements are disposed ofImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

China's own waste

Waste is often toxic when it arrives to China. However, the negative impact is exacerbated by the fact that many of the smaller privately owned processing plants paid little attention to environmental standards. This is shown explicitly in the 2016 documentary "Plastic China."

Domestic garbage has grown as China has become itself a consumer society. Some 520,000 tons of waste are produced daily. Most is burned. The idea is to eventually recycle more of the products made in China and to ensure that the country's incineration plants are more environmentally friendly.

Until this is possible, Operation Green Fence and the National Sword campaign against foreign trash will ensure that waste is better sorted and toxic materials remain on container ships. At the Communist Party's 19th congressPresident Xi Jinping said this was one more step toward a sustainable environment policy.

So now what?

The ban will have major consequences for industrialized nations. They will not only have to sort their waste better but think seriously about what to do with it.

Many countries do not have the necessary infrastructure to process and recycle all the waste that they produce. Recycling is not widespread in the United States, yet consumption is. It is currently cheaper to ship waste to China than it is to send it from A to B in the United States. Moreover, the trade in metals, plastics and paper is a source of income for the US and the EU in particular.

Of the 7.3 million tons of plastic waste sent to China in 2016, 1.6 million came from the European Union.

China's garbage sector could lose money and jobs as a result. This is why the government plans to invest more in the service sector.

A dirty game

The government's decision came as a surprise to major waste producers, and there is no consensus on how to react. There are various options, including developing storing and recycling facilities within Europe, as well as reducing waste in the production chain.

What is more likely to happen is that waste will be sent to other countries in Asia, such as India, Bangladesh and Vietnam, shifting the problem but not solving it.

As China grows as a consumer society, the "out of sight, out of mind" attitude is no longer sustainable.