China’s Waste Import Ban Upends Global Recycling Industry

China was the world's top destination for recyclable waste for years, but a ban on certain imports has left nations scrambling to find new dumping grounds for growing piles of garbage.

The decision was announced in July and came into force on Jan. 1, giving companies from Europe to the United States barely six months to look for other options and forcing some to store rubbish in parking lots.

In China, some recycling companies have had to lay off staff or shut down due to the lost business, AFP reported.

The ban bars imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles.

  Filling China's Enormous Shoes

The ban has been like an "earthquake" for countries dependent on China, said Arnaud Brunet, the head of the Bureau of International Recycling.

"It has put our industry under stress since China is simply the largest market in the world" for recycled materials, he told AFP, noting that he expected exports of certain materials to tank by 40% or more.

Some are now looking at emerging markets elsewhere such as India, Pakistan or Southeast Asia, but it could be more expensive than shipping waste to China.

Sending recyclables to China is cheaper because they are placed on ships that would "otherwise be empty" when they return to the Asian country after delivering consumer goods in Europe, said Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Britain-based Recycling Association.

Brunet also warned that many alternate countries may not yet be up to the task of filling China's enormous shoes, since "processing capacity doesn't develop overnight".

The ban risks causing a "catastrophic" environmental problem as backlogs of recyclable waste are instead incinerated or dumped in landfills with other refuse.

  Hard to Do business

The ban has also created challenges for Chinese companies dependent on foreign waste. As prices for such raw materials go up, production will be reduced and some of them may no longer do business at all.  But at the same time, the ban could jolt China into improving its own patchy recycling systems, allowing it to reuse more local materials, said Greenpeace plastics expert Liu Hua.

"When there aren't resources coming from abroad, there's a greater likelihood of us improving our own internal recycling," he said. Jean-Marc Boursier, president of the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services, said that in Europe, the ban could also have the positive effect of prompting countries to focus on developing domestic recycling industries.


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