China’s Ban! Where will Foreign Garbage Go?

From the end of January, 2018, China will ban imports of 24 types of solid waste, including waste plastics, unsorted scrap paper, discarded textiles and vanadium slag.

By Zhang Huiyuan

From the end of January, 2018, China will ban imports of 24 types of solid waste, including waste plastics, unsorted scrap paper, discarded textiles and vanadium slag. However, many western countries have become accustomed to packing both commercial waste and domestic garbage and sending it to China. China’s ban on the import of solid waste has caused turmoil in the world’s recycling industry: where will they go with their garbage.

China was once the world’s largest importer of foreign waste. In the two decades between 1995 and 2016, China’s annual imports of garbage increased tenfold from 4.5 million tons to 45 million tons and became a massive industry. Across the country, special agencies and venues for collecting foreign garbage were set up, making a significant contribution to improving the living environment for Western people. Why is China to stop importing foreign garbage? What will be the impact of losing China – the largest buyer – on the global garbage recycling industry? How does China deal with the garbage produced by its own population of 1.3 billion? What measures will China take to usher in greener and more sustainable development tomorrow?

At the beginning of 2018, many western countries face new pressure over their waste. With the implementation of a total ban on the import of 24 types of solid waste, such as unsorted scrap paper, discarded textiles and vanadium slag, which create a high risk of environmental pollution, some countries are facing the problem of garbage accumulation.

China’s Ban on Foreign Waste is Forced by its Limited Environmental Carrying Capacity

According to the MEP’s statistics, China imported 46.6 million tons of solid waste in 2016, including waste paper, waste plastics and scrap metal, which was the largest volume in the world, accounting for 89%. Other data indicated that waste plastic imported by China in 2016 accounted for 56% of the world total, and the imports of scrap copper and waste paper accounted for more than half of the total global trade. This huge volume has imposed tremendous pressure on China’s ecological environment.

The fundamental purpose of China’s ban on import of foreign waste is to guard against environmental pollution, improve the quality of the ecological environment, and safeguard people’s health. It is well-known that the stacking, dismantling, and secondary processing of foreign waste will trigger pollution in the atmosphere, water, and soil. In addition, secondary processing will produce toxic solid hazardous waste which is difficult to deal with. Even general recyclable solid waste is often mixed with a large volume of high-level waste and hazardous waste, with a high environmental risk.

Even worse, most of China’s recycling enterprises processing foreign waste as raw materials are scattered, disorderly and polluting, with poor or no pollution control facilities. As a result, the pollution they discharge in processing and utilization seriously damages the local ecological environment. In addition, industries processing and utilizing foreign waste mainly rely on manual sorting and manual disassembly. Many toxic and harmful substances carried by foreign waste such as viruses and bacteria may directly threaten employees, and the environmental pollution during the processing and utilization will also damage the local people’s health.

The world’s recycling industry will press forward with a new model to dispose of garbage

On August 3rd 2017, the British magazine The Economist published an article headed China Tries to Keep Foreign Rubbish Out, anticipating that China’s ban on foreign waste would hit the recycling industry hard. It pointed out that the ban was a part of a government campaign against “yang laji” or foreign waste, which will protect the environment and improve public health. However, the proposed import ban would also cost billions of dollars in lost trade. Recyclers were worried that other categories of waste might soon receive the same treatment.

Reuters said that China is a big importer of waste. According to statistics from the International Trade Center, China imported 7.3 million tons of waste plastic valued at 3.7 billion U.S. dollars (about 24.9 billion yuan) last year, accounting for 56% of the world’s total volume of import.

Due to China’s dominance of the world’s garbage collection trade, this ban on imports of foreign waste would indeed have an impact on the global garbage recycling industry in the short term. However, in the long run it will play a positive role in the development of exporting countries and the global solid waste recycling industry, as well as in the improvement of technology.

On the one hand, it will force current exporting countries to promote their own resource recycling industries and the development of the circular economy. The development of renewable resource industries has become an important way to solve the problem of resource shortage globally and achieve the sustainable recycling of resources. Garbage-exporting countries such as Europe and the United States can take this opportunity to refine their domestic resource recycling system, developing a recycling economy and foster new growth points. For example, the EU has embarked on a “plastic strategy study”, and the French Ministry of Economy has already planned to push ahead with the Circular Economy Roadmap in 2018.

On the other hand, it will also force the entire solid waste recycling industry to improve technology. China’s new policy will force current waste exporters to adopt more stringent measures and standards to promote reduction at source and resource utilization. For example, the French Plastics Manufacturers Association hopes to promote “green design” and some U.S. companies have also re-established standards for recycling garbage. The upgrade of standards will also promote the development of new business in recycling technology.

Garbage Problem created by “Made in China” is increased

The Chinese government has been steadily strengthening ecological infrastructure. In particular, the utilization of solid waste has been greatly improved in the last five years. However, the current situation regarding prevention and control of solid waste pollution in China is still serious, and the problems of domestic waste are very prominent. With rapid economic and social development, new formats such as e-commerce, express delivery and takeaway businesses continue to emerge, resulting in new garbage pollution problems. According to incomplete statistics, in 2016 China’s express delivery industry consumed more than 10 billion express waybills, 3.2 billion knit bags, 6.8 billion plastic bags, 3.7 billion crates and 330 million rolls of packaging tape. China’s three major take-out platforms – Eleme, Meituan, and Baidu – processed twenty million orders per day. If one plastic bag is used for each order, and a plastic bag measures 0.06m3, we can calculate that all these plastic bags would cover 1.2 million m², the equivalent of 168 football pitches.


To solve the problem of garbage disposal in China, we need to form a multi-governance system. On the one hand, we need to introduce incentives that encourage public green living, green consumption, and waste sorting to reduce solid waste such as household waste at source. On the other, stricter standards should be promulgated to strengthen the guidance, restraint and supervision over production and circulation processes, for example, promoting green packaging standards and pushing enterprises to take on more environmental responsibility. At the same time, we must further strengthen the solid waste recovery system, vigorously developing the resource recycling industry.

How to Achieve Sustainable Development?

China has identified the building of an ecological civilization as the country’s grand millennium project, and is striving to move toward the goal of building a beautiful China where people and nature live in harmony. It was proposed at the 19th National Congress of CPC that we should promote green development, solve prominent environmental problems, intensify the protection of ecosystems, and reform the environmental regulation system, which is the focus of environmental protection work over the next five years.

The following aspects of environmental protection will be further strengthened:

Firstly, a more rigorous system of the rule of law. China still lacks sound legal systems for the protection of the ecological environment, and various laws and regulations are still being strengthened and refined.

Secondly, the capacity of environmental governance. There exist huge gaps and deficiencies in ecological environmental infrastructure, technology and human resources, and it is necessary to constantly modernize ecological and environmental governance.

Thirdly, the protection of the ecological environment. The protection of ecological environment in China is still dominated by the government, while the public and the market fail to participate. In the future, it will be necessary to establish an environmental governance system in which the government is the dominant force, and the enterprises are the main body, while social organizations and the general public participate together.

Fourthly, cooperation and exchange. A global community of shared future for humanity means that the international community should join hands to protect the homeland of the planet upon which we live, and all should benefit from as well as support each other, learning from each other in terms of ecological environment governance and sustainable development.


Zhang Huiyuan (Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences)

Edited by Dong Lingyi.