Effective this year, China’s ban on foreign waste is promising to shake up more than just a few waste management systems. What could be good news for China is terrible news for countries like the UK, U.S., and Australia, which are largely dependent on China for buying their garbage for recycling. The foreign waste ban is expected to pile up paper, plastic, and other waste left un-recycled.

Foreign waste in Shanghai

Landfill in Shanghai. CC: Christopher

China found that foreign waste includes too many other nonrecyclable materials that are dirty and even hazardous. In July, China decided to impose a policy to take effect as of 2018, banning the import of foreign waste, since there has been an excess in waste imports leaving piles of paper, plastic, glass, and tires. 2,500 tons of fresh paper waste piles up everyday in Hong Kong with no place to go. “We started our business 50 years ago and we have never experienced such a crisis,” says Jacky Lau, director of Hong Kong’s main recycling business association. The industry was losing $346,000 everyday.

“You can already see the impact if you walk round some of our members’ yards,” says Simon Ellin, chief executive of the UK Recycling Association. “Plastic is building up and if you were to go around those yards in a couple of months’ time the situation would be even worse.”

The UK was suffering the impact of Chinese policy even before it went into effect. As early as Autumn 2017, shippers didn’t want to risk it and send their foreign waste because they couldn’t tell if it would arrive at Chinese premises before January 1. “We have relied on exporting plastic recycling to China for 20 years and now people do not know what is going to happen,” says Ellin. “A lot of [our members] are now sitting back and seeing what comes out of the woodwork, but people are very worried.”

Foreign waste in London.

Sorting plastic bottles in London. CC: Lars Plougmann

The U.S. is also in a state of panic; the country exports almost 33 percent of its recycling, nearly half of which goes to China. Laura Leebrick, an employee at Rogue Waste Systems, now sits in a warehouse surrounded by stacks of unwanted recycling bales. The warehouse doesn’t even have room for all that sorted garbage. Outside, parking spaces dedicated for employees have been occupied by garbage as well. Rogue Waste says it has no choice but to take all of this recycling to the local landfill.

The Chinese foreign waste ban will affect an annual average of 619,000 tons of materials worth $523 million in Australia alone. Although the process won’t be easy, waste managers in Australia are seeing this challenge posed by the foreign waste ban as an opportunity to build a proper system for a better circular economy. “The real opportunity in Australia is to create that circular economy that’s happening overseas,”  says Gayle Sloan, the chief executive of the Waste Management Association of Australia. “That’s what China is moving towards, where they’re saying we produce that material, we actually want to recycle that material and reuse it back in the economy.”

The ban on foreign waste will take a toll on its homeland as well. China is the world’s largest paper recycler. It produced around 63.3 million tons of waste paper pulp in 2016, with around 24 percent produced from foreign waste.

Now that the ban is taken into effect, the price of recycled paper is not likely to be cheap on the long term, according to Cheung Yan, the chairperson of Nine Dragons Paper Holdings, one of China’s largest packaging and paper producers.“In terms of cracking down on polluting activities we support China but the way it has done it appears quite heavy handed. Some companies are export arms of Chinese paper mills and they will be hit as well,” Cheung said.

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