Last year, China announced a ban on imports of ‘foreign garbage’. The result? Western stockpiles of used paper and plastic have reached crisis proportions. Adam Liebman explains why we need a less rosy notion of what actually happens to our recycling.
In 2017, Plastic China premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, quickly gaining critical acclaim. The film focuses on an unschooled 11-year-old girl who lives among imported plastic waste in a northern Chinese village. In the background, viewers see how plastic packaging that is imported from across the world is washed in polluting chemical baths, with the leftover plastic disposed of by burning, spewing toxins into the air. At the beginning of the film’s online media cut, filmmaker Jiuliang Wang asks the director of a recycling centre in California why plastics are being shipped to China: ‘The markets are just too good coming from China.’ Wang asks further, ‘Do you know how your Chinese buyers process your plastics?’ to which the director hesitantly replies, ‘The conditions are not ideal…’
Not long after the film premiered, the ‘good markets’ from China began to disappear as the Chinese government made moves to tighten restrictions on yang laji (‘foreign garbage’). This culminated in an announcement to the World Trade Organization in July 2017 that China would soon ban the import of 24 types of ‘solid waste’, including types of plastic and paper scrap that are end products of recycling programmes in Western countries. Despite appeals from scrap industry trade associations, the government strengthened the restrictions as it began fully implementing its new policies in 2018. Global commodity prices of many scrap materials have plummeted in response. Without demand from the Chinese market, much of the material collected as ‘recycling’ is piling up around the world with nowhere to go except landfills and incinerators.'
Read more: No more of your junk
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