After decades of ignoring soil, water and air pollution within its jurisdiction the Chinese government has notified the WTO that it will ban ‘foreign garbage‘ imports. To make room for the rapid economic growth that propelled China to the status of global manufacturer its authorities chose to shut an eye on the various environmental misdeeds consequent to economic expansion. That involved a tripling of waste generation within less than a decade. The decision to ban waste imports such as plastics, paper and industrial residues, is an indication that Chinese authorities are ready to deal with the negative externalities of their economic growth.
China imports 24 types of waste, most of which come from neighboring economies. The import ban covers almost exclusively solid waste such as plastic, paper, slag from steelmaking and textile waste, which are classified as a source of pollution resulting from their incineration or landfill deposition. While there are reasons to cheer for China’s ambitious to reduce domestic pollution and for that matter ban waste imports, this decision is poised to harm Chinese recycling businesses in coastal areas. The decision, due to enter into force towards the end of 2017, will shut off $3.7 billion worth of plastic waste and $1 billion worth of unsorted paper.
The impact of the ban is also not something of scale. Waste imports account for a small share of domesticaly produced Chinese waste volumes. For examples, imported plastic waste amounted to 7Mt in 2016 while domestically produced plastic waste was about 30Mt. A similar story applies for other waste streams. A follow-up on the import ban should, in consequence, be tackling domestically produced waste with hazardous consequences when incinerated or disposed in landfills.
A number of aspects emerge from the waste ban news, as:
- Chinese authorities are using their centralized power to tackle a sensitive issue such as waste, but their starting point is external (smaller) source rather than from within (the larger). Their impact can only be limited.
- This could also be a sign of maturity from the part of China, who is also committed to the decarbonization pledges made with the Paris Climate Agreement unlike some developed nations.
- Allegedly, the waste contamination problem of coastal Chinese provinces has been heavily under-evaluated with implication for water, soil and air contamination which could take a minimum of two generations to mend.
- The announcement to the WTO sends a political message to the neighboring economies who relied on China to off-take their polluting waste streams. This means that other economies in the region could take the role china has been playing so far, or these nations need to develop domestic disposal measures for the polluting wastes.