China to ban all imports of solid waste from 2021

The Chinese Government is set to ban all imports of solid waste from 2021, the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) has learned.

According to the BIR’s contacts in China, the country’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced on 30 June in a press conference that it would no longer accept and approve import applications for solid waste from 2021.

Customs officials inspect waste in Guangzhou
Image: Guangzhou Customs
The BIR said that the ban is in line with policies applied since 2017 to crackdown on the import of foreign waste. At the start of 2018, China introduced a ban on 24 grades of solid waste, including unsorted mixed papers and post-consumer plastics, and implemented a 0.5 per cent contamination limit for all other solid waste imports.

Furthermore, in 2017, the Chinese Government launched the National Sword campaign to crack down on the smuggling of solid waste, following on from 2013’s Operation Green Fence and preceding the Blue Sky initiative first launched in 2018.

The Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced that the revised ‘Law on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Wastes’ will come into force from 1 September and will clarify the legal requirements for the identification of attributes of imported goods suspected of being solid waste.

The BIR also revealed that the Ministry had published its ninth batch of waste import quotas for 2020 this week, allowing 176,746 tonnes of copper scrap, 209,660 tonnes of aluminium scrap, 4,990 tonnes of steel scrap and 1,115,426 tonnes of paper scrap to enter China.

China’s total ban on solid waste imports represents the latest development in the tightening of international waste markets triggered by China’s 2018 ban. Since then, many waste exports have been diverted to other markets, particularly in Southeast Asia. Plastic waste exports to Malaysia tripled and exports to Thailand increased by fifty times since the start of 2018.

This provoked new import restrictions in these countries, with Malaysia banning the import of plastic waste altogether, and Thailand intending to do the same from 2021 as they struggle under the weight of these imports. India also moved to ban imports of plastic waste in 2019 before tightening restrictions on the import of mixed papers at the end of 2019.

The disruption to export markets has hastened moves to regulate the export of plastic waste in particular, with 186 countries agreeing to place restrictions on the movement of plastic waste by amending the Basel Convention in 2019.

In the UK, MPs had been placing pressure on the government to ban the export of plastic waste to developing countries in early 2019, with the government responding by including such a ban in its Environment Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament.

Waste management company Biffa was recently handed a heavy fine for attempting to export contaminated mixed paper waste to China in breach of waste export regulations, losing its appeal against the decision last week (3 July).

Commenting on China’s ban, Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association, said: “This is the confirmation of what I think we had all accepted was going to happen. We are at a crossroads in the UK recycling industry. Others are following the China model, for example, Indonesia, and it is another market that may well disappear over an undefined time period. Other export countries have implemented restrictions such as India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and more. You add into this mix the Biffa appeal verdict which makes exporting per se even more confusing where we are valiantly trying to export a product that has no definition and doesn’t actually exist.

“We are 60 per cent net exporters of paper and 70 per cent net exporters of plastic packaging because we have insufficient UK reprocessing infrastructure. So where is all this material going to go? There are no signs of any investment in UK paper recycling infrastructure for at least the next five years.

“It is time for the government to stop burying its head in the sand and wake up to the fact that the ambitious Environment Bill will not be delivered without a proper road map that allows us to fill the ever increasing black hole of sustainable market infrastructure. Our industry needs help. And quickly.”

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