EPISODE 3: Sorting through China's plastic wastE
26 MARCH 2018
So you thought your recyclable waste was going to a local processing plant? It was actually very likely shipped to China, to be processed in unregulated plants by migrant workers. Until January 2018, when China decided to end this charade.
Now Western countries are forced to deal with their own waste and it is causing a bit of a crisis, to say the least. But why did China shut down this profitable industry? We spoke with waste management experts from China to find out what motivated this change.
Mao Da, Rock Environment and Energy Institute
Chen Liwen, Nature University engo
CHRISTINE LOH, HONG KONG UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Hi. My name is Sam Bekemans. Marcy and I spent many, many hours making this documentary series possible. And now that the series is out, I realise there is just so much info that never made it to the final cut! So if you'd like to find out more about this issue, the people we interviewed, or the details they mention; this is the place. I'll try my best to add all the links and info you might be looking for, but you can always reach out to us on our contact page if there's more we can help you with.
For episode three of our series, we wanted to focus on China's 2018 waste import ban.
For decades, China was the largest buyer of recyclable waste coming from the developed world. It was a valuable trade; the recycled scrap, paper, and textile could fuel the manufacturing industry, and it was much cheaper than extracting raw materials.
According to Bloomberg, "Recycling 1 ton of paper saves enough energy to power the average American home for six months, while using recycled material to produce plastic reduces the energy required by as much as 87 percent."
And ships that used to return to China empty-handed could now fill up their containers with waste from the US and Europe, a process called 'reverse haulage'.
But the good old days are over for the recycling trade. Foreign waste treatment companies got a little too enthusiastic about the incentives and profits of the export, and soon enough anything from food waste to toxic material got sent over to China.
So in recent years the central government decided to clamp down on this malpractice with ever tighter restrictions. First came the 2013 'Operation Green Fence', leading to 70% of shipping containers undergoing rigorous inspection, and 22,000 containers deemed unfit for import.
This first pushback was largely successful, waste sellers were frightened they'd lose their trading licence, and foreign processing plants invested millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities, according to industry experts at Waste360.
Then came the 2017 'National Sword' campaign, promising a tougher crackdown on smuggling. 'National Sword' has since become a sort of catch-all for China's waste policy.
In that sense, the biggest bombshell of the campaign was dropped on 18 July 2017, when China notified the World Trade Organisation that it was issuing a total ban on 24 types of waste, and tightening the tolerable contamination standard from 2% to 0.5%
Shutting down the trade in recycled resources will also hurt China's own industry though, so why would the government make such a radical decision? We put that question to Mao Da, a leading environmental campaigner in China. He is the founder of two influential NGOs: the 'Nature University' and 'Rock Environment and Energy Institute'.
Da identified three reasons for the import ban. One reason is the negative effect of importing contaminated waste. There is always the risk of pathogens entering the country in things like food waste or syringes, or worse —like when cargo from Kazakhstan accidentally contained 100 tonnes of radioactive metal. Now that China has reached a certain level of economic prosperity, they can afford to avoid these situations.
Another reason for the ban lies in public perception:
Da: The Chinese public sees this import of foreign waste as humiliating. This ban turns the negative international image we had into a more positive image, we are showing developing countries that they don’t need to accept the West’s pollution anymore.
This follows a more subtle shift in the way China likes to present itself on the international stage. The Chinese leadership is not afraid to upset the developed world, while bolstering an image as protector of the Global South. And it seems to work: a BBC poll revealed that in rich countries like Germany and Japan, roughly 75% of people have an negative view of China; but in developing nations like Nigeria (85% positive), Ghana (67% positive) or Peru (54% positive), they seem to like China a whole lot more.
The last —and most likely— reason for the import ban is the restructuring of China's domestic waste management, says Mao Da.
As you can see from these World Bank statistics, China's total municipal solid waste generation amounts to less than that of the United States —for now. This number is expected to soar in the coming decade and beyond, due to a combination of population growth and improving living standards.
A timely result of those improving living standards is the rise of e-commerce. 2017 Singles' Day shopping spree, think Black Friday times 5, earned online retailer Alibaba a whopping $25 billion, but also generated an estimated 160,000 tonnes of packaging waste. Several e-commerce businesses are trying to come up with lighter or reusable packaging, but the problem will persist for now.
Even more worrisome is the fact that e-commerce is spreading to rural areas with notoriously poor collection rates for plastic waste. We mentioned it briefly in episode 1; according to a 2017 Ocean Conservancy report, in rural China just 5% of waste is collected.
Safe to say, China is in dire need of an efficient waste management system, but this is severely lacking. In fact, much of the sorting and recycling is still done by an informal sector of waste pickers.
To learn more about these waste pickers, we talked with Chen Liwen.
Chen Liwen is a researcher with Mao Da's Nature University NGO. When we rang her up, she was in a small village in the backcountry, teaching people about waste separation and setting up treatment facilities.
Liwen: In China, sorting and recycling is done by the informal sector. This means small businesses or even just families, collecting rubbish from a certain area and separating the waste, selling what can be recycled to processing centers. Then these centers sort the waste further and deliver it to recycling plants.
In a 2006 paper, a UK team of researchers distinguished four categories of waste pickers:
- Itinerant waste buyers : Waste collectors who often go from door to door, collecting sorted dry recyclable materials from householders or domestic servants, which they buy or barter and then transport to a recycling shop of some kind. Apart from their labour, they invest capital to acquire and run a vehicle. [...] China, in particular, is highly dependent on this mode of informal recycling.
- Street waste picking: Secondary raw materials are recovered from mixed waste thrown on the streets or from communal bins before collection.
- Municipal waste collection crew : Secondary raw materials are recovered from vehicles transporting [municipal solid waste] to disposal sites. This practice is widespread, e.g. in Mexico, Colombia, Thailand and the Philippines.
- Waste picking from dumps : Waste pickers/scavengers sort through wastes prior to being covered [...]. This is often associated with communities that live in shacks, built from waste construction materials, on or near the dump.
These waste pickers are very efficient at separating the waste and selling what can be recycled to treatment centres. The Chinese government is trying to move waste management into the formal sector, but the process is slow. Wu Kaming, assistant professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote a book on the topic. She came to our studio to explain why Chinese society is resisting increasing regulation. Unfortunately we couldn't fit Kaming's explanation into the episode.
Kaming: It isn't illegal for waste pickers to buy and sell plastics, but the problem is the value is very low; so they need to sort through huge amounts of plastics, and when possible deal in other goods, like metal. Metal can be sold at a higher price, but it's illegal to trade metal outside the government-sanctioned channels. That's why the waste pickers don't want to work within the government regulations.
And residents also don't want these waste pickers to go away. The formal system is not capable of replacing them just yet, so many communities still rely on them.
Still, in the long run waste pickers will have to make way for the formal sector, as Christine Loh —who also featured in episode 2— explained:
Christine: You cannot depend on [waste pickers] going forward, because the waste sector is changing. As education and public awareness increase, we want people to be better protected if we're dealing with waste. Also with digitalisation: weight and volume become very important, because every city has to set targets. So you need to know. It's no longer possible in the longer term to rely on this informal sector.
The government is indeed setting targets, such as the 35% recycling rate for cities mentioned in the episode; or that the recovery of solid waste should increase from 246 million tons in 2015 to 350 million tons in 2020, a target set in the same paper that announced the import ban last summer.
And this brings us back to the waste import ban. As the formal sector is slowly replacing the informal sector, the ban redirects the efforts of official waste treatment facilities back to the domestic market. Chinese recycling plants are running at a loss because of a lack of resources, so there is an economic motivation to organise an efficient waste management scheme within the country.
And as Da closes the episode:
Da: this plan helps both developing and developed countries. It can allow developing countries to reject foreign waste and take care of domestic recyclable resources; and developed countries can finally face what’s been ignored for so long: the insufficient recycling capacity in their own countries. If we can focus on redesigning plastics in an ecological way, and develop a circular economy, all countries will benefit from China’s decision.
And other countries are taking notice, check out this short Sky News documentary on the impact of the ban on British waste: