A perspective on China’s ban on importing foreign waste

Source: 南都观察

This July, China announced a ban on the import of 24 types of solid waste by the end of the year, with the motivation of protecting its environmental interests and the public’s health. Three month into the new regulations, Hu Boyang from Narada Insight shared his perspective on the ban.

China has been a top destination for waste for years, importing garbage from around the world for recycling to secure cheap commodities for manufacturers, at the risk however of severe environmental costs. To elaborate Hu takes Guiyu, the notorious E-Waste town in Guangdong, as an example: the considerable profits from the recycling of electronics has brought thousands of workshops to the area, that dismantle and extract valuable material such as lead, copper, and gold from electronics.

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According to statistics, by 2003 nearly 80% of local families had joined the business, some of whom had made a fortune. It also generated a boon for the local government’s revenues. The media celebrated it as the “Guiyu model”. Yet looming over the prospect of economic development are the abysmal dangers to public health and the high processing costs that go way beyond the benefits. Electronics scrap from televisions, computers and mobile phones contains hazardous chemicals, and the traditional recycling methods used in Guiyu mean that the waste is discharged of arbitrarily, poisoning not only the environment, but also the people— about 80% of children under six in the area suffer from lead poisoning, and over 80% of middle and primary schoolers suffer from respiratory diseases.

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The export and import of waste is in itself no news. Most countries import and export waste or re-export recycled waste to other countries. The waste is not all useless, for instance there are 0.9 kgs of gold, 128.7 kgs of copper, 270 kgs of plastic, 58.5 kgs of lead and a small amount of noble metals per ton of components from dead computers. If properly handled, the recycling business can be profitable. As a leading importer, China imported about 7.4 million tons of waste plastic, 28 million tons of waste paper and 5.8 million tons of scrap steel in 2010. The United States and Japan are the biggest waste exporters to China. With their low environmental standards and cheap labour, developing countries are the natural choices as export destinations. Apart from possessing these two requirements, China’s great market demand also galvanized the import of waste and scraps.

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Once the recyclables are received and collected, it is the reprocessing that determines whether they are just trash or can be turned into something more useful. For experienced countries like Sweden, only 1% of municipal domestic refuse is unusable. Among all the different methods, sorting apparently is the most effective one. In China, rag pickers play a very important role in garbage sorting, remaining anonymous to the official garbage sorting system but efficiently practicing waste segregation. But the rag-picker brigade is staggering due to the crash of recycling businesses which began with the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. According to the state media, many recycling businesses closed, and millions lost their jobs. Hu concludes by saying that Hong Kong, with its special processing centers for different kinds of waste, presents a rather good model of waste-sorting that is lead by the government.

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