China Says No to Even More Foreign Waste

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By Michael Standaert and Catherine Douglas Moran

Consumer plastics is among the 24 new solid waste imports China will ban by the end of the year amid increased public concern over environmental contamination and decreased need for scrap materials by industry.

The decision could potentially benefit U.S. companies if the ban shifts the focus to increased domestic utilization of scrap material, two officials from U.S. business groups told Bloomberg BNA. But one other group said it could harm them if China’s technology and manufacturing capacity is not filled in the U.S.

“A number of unscrupulous businessmen from at home and abroad have been illegally importing waste, smuggling garbage and causing a lot of environmental problems,” Guo Jing, director of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s international cooperation department said at a July 20 news briefing in Beijing. “They must be severely punished and investigated.”

The expanded list of banned wastes comes amid a crackdown on environmental violations at solid waste importers and recycling centers. Nearly 800 of the 1,200 businesses the ministry has inspected since July 1 had environmental violations and have been ordered to rectify their problems or face fines and other sanctions, according to information released July 21.

Potential Positive Impact

David Biderman, chief executive officer and executive director of Solid Waste Association of North America, told Bloomberg BNA in an email the organization has been in close contact with the Department of Commerce and other federal officials about the announcement.

“The precise scope, timing, and impact of the ban on U.S. municipal recycling programs is not entirely clear,” Biderman wrote. “To the extent less recyclables are exported to China, and instead are processed in the United States, this could have a positive impact on jobs in the U.S.”

Steve Alexander, executive director of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, told Bloomberg BNA that he is “cautiously optimistic” that the ban will help investment in domestic infrastructure.

“Opportunities and the marketplace will adjust. They may not adjust by Friday, but they will adjust,” he said. “Hopefully this spurs investment into the recycling infrastructure in this country.”

Adina Renee Adler, senior director of international relations at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc., told Bloomberg BNA that confusion occurs in the international recycling industry because many countries, including China, do not distinguish between scrap and waste material.

“We understand that China is concerned about its environment,” Adler said. “It believes that imports from certain forces have included unusable trash that have raised concerns among certain folks in their government about a perception that China is just a dumping ground for foreign garbage.”

Adler said China has a “robust” manufacturing sector that has the technology to utilize scrap material. Adler said that she would like to see China adopt or recognize U.S. standards for defining waste and scrap materials.

“If you eliminate a large market like that, companies could face closure or lay off workers and nobody likes to see that occur,” she said, adding that the organization is trying to work with the U.S. and Chinese governments to understand the ban’s domestic and international impacts.

Response to Documentary

Authorities in China appear to be responding in part to public outcry over a documentary, “Plastic China,” directed by Wang Jiuliang that showed appalling conditions at a recycling center of mostly imported plastic waste in Shandong province. The video went viral for part of January before being removed from the Internet in China just around Chinese New Year.

According to the International Solid Waste Association, China is the leading importer of waste plastics in the world, accounting for 56 percent of global imports, by weight, according to 2014 data.

China informed the World Trade Organization on July 18 that it would stop accepting imports of items on the new list by the end of the year.

Among the waste materials that would be included in the ban are four categories containing the 24 specific items: certain consumer waste plastics, unsorted waste paper, waste textile materials, vanadium slag, Guo said.

China last updated its list of banned solid waste imports in 2015, a list that included 11 categories and 94 items within those categories.

These waste categories included animal or plant material, mineral residue, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, rubber and leather, specialty paper, textile materials, glass, batteries, electronic and electrical equipment, and other items such as asbestos and fishing nets.

To contact the reporters on this story: Michael Standaert in Shenzhen, China at correspondents@bna.com; Catherine Douglas Moran in Washington at cmoran@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

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