China’s ban on foreign waste imports is a wake-up call for developed countries to rethink sustainability

Yanzhu Zhang asks how we can create a shared sustainable future and turn waste into resources.

Estimated reading time: 5 Minutes

On March 23, a US representative raised concerns at the World Trade Organization, claiming that “China’s import restrictions on recycled commodities have caused a fundamental disruption in global supply chains for scrap materials.”

His concern related to China’s decision in mid-2017 to impose a ban on the importation of 24 types of solid waste in four classes, including unsorted waste paper, textiles and plastics by the end of the 2017. This is not the first time China bans foreign garbage, in fact, back in 2013, the US was banned from exporting garbage to China through the ‘Green Fence Initiative.’

The decision on banning foreign waste imports had been communicated to WTO more than half a year earlier, and China’s ministry has told it is China’s right to ban foreign waste. "Restricting and banning the importing of solid waste is an important measure China has taken to implement the new development concept, improve environmental quality and safeguard people's health," said one Chinese government official. “We hope that the US can reduce and manage hazardous waste and other waste of its own and take up more duties and obligations.” And opinion is evident that China does not have an obligation to import and treat the solid waste of other countries.

To understand the dispute, we need to consider the facts and the following key questions.

Why did China ban foreign waste imports?

In the 1980s, China started to import solid waste as raw materials to make up for the domestic shortage of resources. Certain types of solid waste were highly polluting, severely damaging the environment and public health. Today, with enhanced public awareness of environmental and health issues, and with the government’s drive for sustainable development, a ban on foreign waste can help safeguard public health.

China’s ban on foreign waste imports is also in line with the UN Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries (LDCs). According to the Basel Convention, every country has the right to ban the entry of foreign hazardous waste and other sorts of waste.

What was the situation before the ban?

The following statistics illustrate the extent of waste imports to China before the ban. The actual figures would be higher, as the reported data below does not take into account illegal imports.

How has the international community reacted to China’s ban?

The US: The US asked China not to implement the ban on foreign waste, and some commentators have blamed China for the increase in landfill use. But others in the US think the ban could be a “golden opportunity” to stimulate new recycling business and strengthen recycling campaigns in America.

The UK: The UK had already reduced its volume of waste exports to China since China’s notice to the WTO, and David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet” documentary series further raised awareness of the issue, with even Buckingham Palace announcing its commitment to plastic waste reduction. This takes on an even greater meaning against the backdrop of current global discourse.

The EU: In Europe, policy makers and business sectors have reacted more pragmatically towards China’s decision, with some seeing is as a “wake-up call”. “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" said the President of the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services. The European Parliament is seeking stricter and more ambitious recycling targets and compulsory schemes. With China’s Ban, the EU has announced plastics strategy and new recycling initiatives, with an ambitious target of recycling all plastics by 2030.

The UN: The United Nations Environment Programme considered China’s foreign waste ban as a signal to rich nations to increase recycling and cut down non-essential product consumption. Mr. Erik Solheim, Under-Secretary-General of United Nations, said “We should see the Chinese decision […] as a great service to the people of China and a wake-up call to the rest of the world.” The ban should be considered an opportunity to rethink plastic use, rather than looking for “alternative foreign dumping grounds”.

How can we create a shared sustainable future?

Indeed, China’s ban could transform attitudes to domestic and international waste governance. As many observers positively reflected, it is time for rich countries and major waste exporters, the sources of the problem, to rethink sustainability, and stop relying on overseas waste disposal. As well as building more recycling and waste processing plants at home, the major waste exporting countries should also carry out more environmental campaigns to educate citizens on sustainable consumption lifestyles addressing their throwaway habits, in order to take better responsibility in managing their own waste.

But it is not developed countries alone to make changes; developing countries also have the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) to create a shared sustainable future. To turn waste into resources, policy makers and practitioners in all societies may find useful strategies from philosophies such as Industrial Ecology and Circular Economy, and also transforming informal recycling to formal recycling.

Yanzhu Zhang is an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government (MPP Class of 2015). He is currently working at the World Bank headquarters in Washington D.C. and previously worked at UNIDO headquarters in Vienna.