At the end of last year China introduced a policy banning imports of 24 types of solid waste, including certain types of plastic and all mixed-paper.
Even though China had informed the World Trade Organisation of its plans early last year, the ban shocked many developed nations who now don’t know what to do with the millions of tonnes of waste they had previously shipped to China.
For many years China has been the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials, with much of it used to feed its manufacturing industry, an initiative that helped it achieve global dominance in that sector. In 2016 it imported some 7.3 million tonnes of waste from developed countries. The UK alone exported more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to Hong Kong and mainland China over a five-year period – about two-thirds of its total plastic-waste shipments.
Now there are fears that China’s action against foreign waste or “yang laji” will choke the seas and lead to the buildup of huge waste-heaps in developed countries. But in many ways it was such concerns on the home front that spurred Beijing into action as the environment has become a hot-button issue both on the mainland and in Hong Kong.
Despite months of warning about the policy change, major waste-exporting countries such as the UK were caught on their backfoot in December. This highlights how exporting waste half-way around the world is not a viable long-term solution for anyone.
The policy will spur action in countries that have been reliant on China to take their garbage, as they now must develop more sustainable ways of producing and disposing of products. In the UK in particular, environmentalists, local councils, recyclers and manufacturers have been calling on the government to introduce tougher environmental regulations that will drive more intelligent recycling solutions. This means addressing the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire lifecycle – from the product and materials-design stage through manufacturing and end-use to disposal and recycling.
While Beijing’s policymakers were addressing local issues in their battle against yang laji, the unintended consequences of their actions may result in a brighter future for all. We all benefit from producing and using goods that leave a smaller environmental footprint, so we no longer need to pass-the-parcel with our rubbish on a global scale.