China for years has welcomed the world’s trash, creating a roaring business in recycling and livelihoods for tens of thousands. Now authorities are clamping down on an industry that has helped the rich West dispose of its waste, but also added to the degradation of China’s environment.
The Chinese campaign is aimed at enforcing standards for waste imports after Beijing decided too many were unusable or even dangerous and would end up in its landfills. Under the crackdown dubbed Green Fence, China has rejected hundreds of containers of waste it said were contaminated or that improperly mixed different types of scrap.
It is abruptly changing a
multibillion-dollar global industry in which China is a major processing center for the world’s discarded soft-drink bottles, scrap metal, electronics and other materials. Whole villages in China’s southeast are devoted to processing single products, such as electronics. Household workshops break down discarded computers or appliances to recover copper and other metals. Some use crude smelters or burn leftover plastic and other materials, releasing lead and other toxins into the air.
Green Fence is in line with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) pledges to make the economy cleaner and more efficient after three decades of breakneck growth that fouled rivers and left China’s cities choking on smog.
Brian Conners, who works for a Philadelphia company that recycles discarded refrigerators, says buyers used to visit every week looking for scrap plastic to ship to China for reprocessing. Then Beijing launched its crackdown in February aimed at cleaning up the thriving, but dirty recycling industry.
“Now they’re all gone,” said Conners, president of ARCA Advanced Processing.
US and European recyclers send a significant part of their business to China and say they support higher quality standards. However, stricter scrutiny has slowed imports and raised their costs. The decline in the number of traders buying scrap to ship to China has also depressed prices that US and European recycling companies can get for their plastic and metals.
“While we support Green Fence, it has increased our cost of doing business,” said Mike Biddle, founder of MBA Polymers, a plastics recycler with facilities in California, Europe and southern China.
“It takes longer and there are more inspections,” he added.
At the same time, people in the industry say recyclers that invest in cleaner technology might be rewarded with more business as dirtier competitors are forced out of the market. The crackdown also might create new opportunities to process material in the US and Europe instead of shipping it around the globe.
China’s recycling industry has boomed over the past 20 years. Its manufacturers needed the metal, paper and plastic, and Beijing was willing to tolerate the environmental cost. Millions of tonnes of discarded plastic, computers, electronics, newspapers, and shredded automobiles and appliances are imported every year from the US, Europe and Japan.
However, environmentalists have long complained the industry is poisoning China’s air, water and soil. And Beijing, ever vigilant about possible threats to the legitimacy of one-party rule, now wants to be seen as addressing increased public awareness and concern over pollution.
“The waste recycling system in China really needs to be updated to reduce pollution,” said Lin Xiaozhu (林筱竹), head of the solid waste program for the Chinese group Friends of Nature.