China uncovers nearly 1m tonnes of illegally smuggled waste

The latest in a long line of interventions by the Chinese Government has seen authorities intercept almost one million tonnes of illegally imported waste since the start of this year.

China uncovers nearly 1m tonnes of illegally smuggled waste
Metal recycling in Hong Kong
Since January, when China introduced a complete ban on the import of 24 grades of solid waste, including unsorted mixed papers and post-consumer plastics, the country has been cracking down on the illegal import of waste, with its latest environmental campaign, ‘Blue Sky 2018’, which follows in the same vein as previous initiatives 2013’s Operation Green Fence and 2017’s ‘National Sword’, focusing on the illicit networks that facilitate the smuggling of waste into the country. A new operation, ‘Sword at the Country’s Gate 2018’, will reportedly be addressing smuggling more widely.

During the first half of the year the General Administration of Customs has exposed 276 cases of waste smuggling, involving a total of 987,900 tonnes of material. This is apparently a rise of 89 per cent on the previous year; one case alone involved 200,000 tonnes of plastic, which was intercepted in the coastal city of Shantou in Guangdong Province.

It is not clear which countries are the main producers of the smuggled waste; over the past 25 years, according to research by the University of Georgia, China accepted nearly half of the world’s non-industrial plastic waste imports, mainly from the US, Europe and Japan. The UK specifically sent nearly 500,000 tonnes of plastics to China every year, and 1.4 million tonnes of recovered paper.

Much of the waste previously imported into China is nominally going to new destinations, with Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand amongst other countries all experiencing a boom; in the first four months of 2018, UK plastic waste exports to Malaysia tripled, while exports to China fell by 97 per cent. However, it may be that waste being exported to other Asian destinations is still ending up in China through illegal means.

A number of Asian countries are now taking steps to tighten controls on waste entering their borders; several ports in Vietnam have stopped accepting plastic waste in order to deal with backlogs of waste piling up, while Thailand authorities have introduced a nationwide temporary prohibition on plastic and e-waste, with the Department of Industrial Works seeking an indefinite ban in the future.

China has allocated 252 billion yuan (£29 billion) to tackling waste problems from 2017 to 2020, and has recently committed to  a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with the EU, an agreement which could see the world’s biggest economies align standards and strategies to drive action towards a more circular economy, in which waste is reduced to a minimum and resources are reused, repaired and recycled.

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