As the world teeters on the precipice of a possible trade war between China and the US, one global conflict has already silently exploded: the problem of trash. Beijing’s decision to close the borders to imports of waste starting Jan. 1 threw a wrench in the works of an enormous, largely invisible trade in the disposal and recycling of trash. Developed countries were exporting millions of tons of materials annually, which each year found their way to Chinese ports, into a giant network of processing and recovery: paper, metal, plastic, electronic components.
The Chinese ban has thrown into turmoil the balance of the global economy, which allowed consumerist countries, the highest producers of waste, not only to partly get rid of their disposal problem, but to market and sell their waste to the Chinese. The decision had already been communicated by Beijing to the WTO over a year ago, but its formalization still threw many countries and municipalities, both European and American, into chaos, which now, in the absence of alternatives, are facing a mammoth accumulation of refuse.
Last month, the United States formally asked China to lift the embargo. Arnaud Brunet, director of the BIR (Bureau of International Recycling), representing 760 industry companies in the world, described the Chinese decision “an earthquake.” Liu Hua, who is monitoring the East Asian plastics industry for Greenpeace, said he expected “shockwaves” across the world. His expectations were indeed met. Ireland, which used to send to China 95 percent of its plastic waste, warned of a coming disaster if alternative destinations were not found.
But the Chinese are not showing any intention to change their minds. On April 11, inspectors at the port of Hangzhou seized 469 tons of solid recyclable materials—paper, scrap iron and empty bottles—and shipped them back to their American senders.
The official reason for the ban is the contamination of the waste, which is sold differentiated but inevitably contains trace amounts of non-recyclable or dirty materials. The new rules impose a threshold of contamination lower than 0.3 percent, which BIR deems impossible to comply with.
The truth is that China has decided it will no longer serve as the Dumpster of the world, which brought with it unsustainable environmental damage. For over 20 years, China has been absorbing recyclable waste from industrialized nations. In 2016, the quantity of metal, plastic and paper waste that passed through Chinese ports amounted to a total of 45 million tons. That year, the United States alone shipped to China 16 million tons of waste, at a value of $5.2 million, and Britain exported a volume equivalent to 10,000 Olympic swimming pools. In all, 50 percent of the world’s recyclable waste ended up in China. This river of waste, removed from the already overburdened Western landfills (but also from Japanese and Korean ones), was caught up in the great economic boom in China, hungry for raw materials to feed the near-vertical growth in production, manufacturing and construction during the last two decades. In fact, only in China, due to the bargain-basement costs of labor, was it economically profitable to perform the selection and recovery work necessary for reusing the materials (for instance, the copper coils contained in electric motors).
Ever since the ‘80s, the business of the recycling of waste has grown steadily, becoming a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. “Right up to 2008, China was desperate for raw materials,” Adam Minter, author of the essential read Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, said in an interview with HuffPost. For their part, the hyper-consumption economies were desperate to sell their recyclable waste elsewhere. It was a perfect symbiosis, though supported by a hidden reality of thousands of family recycling businesses, micro-companies devoted to combing the trash bins of Western consumerism to recover raw materials destined for the production of new consumer goods to be returned to the senders.
In theory, this was a praiseworthy instance of a circular economy, but in reality it came at an enormous human cost. Sundance last year showed the extraordinary and heartbreaking documentary Plastic China. The director, Jiu-Liang Wang, spent over a year with a family in Shandong province, whose house (like another 5,000 in the area) had become a domestic landfill of old plastic. The owner and his family, including his children and those of another family employed as laborers, are literally living in the trash that continues to arrive without pause in containers from the West. They bathe in the same stagnant pools in which the waste itself is cleaned, in the toxic sludge and dust produced by the rudimentary machinery of the family workshop that produces a plastic paste and finally pellets, which are sold for a few dollars a day. The women cook on fires fed by plastic bags from our supermarkets, while small children scratch around in piles of waste, cutting out advertising images for consumer goods from the scraps of magazines and photos of corpulent Western tourists on cruise ships, glittering totems of a wealth that is remote and alien to them—or collect dead fish from the polluted puddles to cook and eat.
Censored and banned from the Internet in China, the documentary made headlines and highlighted the actual effects of the trafficking of waste produced by unrelenting Western consumption—particularly plastics, which are more and more clearly suffocating the global environment and, above all, the oceans, close to the point of no return due to the effect of plastic microfibers, impossible to biodegrade and which have become endemic in the food chain. It was a film that provided a good illustration of the human cost of Western oblivion, and which some are now blaming in part for the recent Chinese decision.
Already in 2013 the Chinese government had launched Operation “Green Fence” to boost the inspection of container ships and curb the import of low-quality waste. A year ago, it followed this up with the initiative called “national sword” aimed at combating illegal shipments of industrial and electronic waste. Finally, the ban was introduced this year, motivated by the “large amounts of contaminated or toxic waste” present in recyclable materials and ”harmful for China’s environment.”
In the face of protests by some in the West this month, Zhang Ming, China’s ambassador to the European Union, wrote of finding the grievances of many exporters “surprising,” recalling that the Basel Convention on transnational waste movements allows each sovereign state to regulate their importing, and calling the practice of developed countries shipping their trash to developing ones “a moral question.”
“In any civilization,” he writes in his article, as reported by Xinhua, “it is morally unacceptable to throw your own garbage in the neighbor’s garden.” He concludes on a harsh note: “As for the exporters who are now weeping and lamenting, one should not expect too much from them, like spoiled children who do not care about the needs of others.”
It is true that, by virtue of necessity and interest, the Chinese government had so far agreed to the terms of the deal, but the tone of their response now signals a decisive turning point, also linked to the radical evolution of the Chinese economy from the “factory of the world” to the domestic consumption that is characteristic of a mature market. While production costs are not as low as they once were, the country now produces by itself more than enough waste. With the continued economic growth, the recycling of imported waste is becoming less profitable as well as a constant source of pollution, the reduction of which is one of the cornerstones of Xi Jinping’s new policy.
There remains the fundamental truth contained in the ambassador’s words: the West must do more to contain its unsustainable levels of waste. Human-generated waste is the only kind without any use in the natural regenerative system of the planet, and the waste connected to the current levels of consumption in rich countries—a category destined to increase significantly with the growth of the Chinese and Indian middle classes—is now at the danger level and beyond.
In short, the decades-long agreement which provided for the flow of trash and waste from the West to developing nations is falling apart. With the closing off of China, most of this waste will presumably find its way to other shores: India, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia—each yet another attempt to self-delusionally conceal the trash that is inevitably accumulating more and more in the ecosystem of our planet. The only way to truly fight this dangerous ecological degradation is the reuse, but most importantly the reduction, of waste. Until we manage to do that, we should be aware that the recyclables that we carefully separate into different bins each day will likely end up in the landfills anyway.