The definitive end of an era in global garbage recycling comes this January 1. China, which for decades was the world giant in receiving waste for treatment, will no longer accept solid waste of any kind from abroad from that day on. This will culminate a three-year process, since in 2017 it began to reject this type of imports to protect its environment and public health, a decision that sowed chaos in recycling chains around the world and has had great significance in Spain. .
From now on, only recycled materials that have already been processed abroad can enter China. Thus, for example, the import of paper pulp will be allowed, but not used paper. “Victory in achieving the goal of zero imports of foreign waste is close at hand,” said Qiu Qiwen, director of the solid and chemical waste department at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE).
Although in theory the waste that is sent from rich countries – paper, plastic, metals – is material to be recycled, and in developing nations it was bought to get the most out of it, in practice only a small proportion arrives in usable condition. Most are too dirty, damaged or mixed with other non-recyclable products. It ends up, therefore, incinerated or in landfills, something that contributes to environmental degradation and pollution by plastic, one of the great human-created pests of our time.
The Chinese ban “is an opportunity for all countries to reduce garbage production from the beginning. This veto increases the pressure on the (waste) exporting countries to consider how to produce less waste, which is the real solution to the crisis we are facing, ”says Liu Hua, from the Greenpeace East Asia campaign against plastics.
Until 2017, China processed almost half of the world’s recycled products, more than 45 million tons of metal, plastic and used paper annually. Since the entry into force of the initial ban on January 1, 2018, these figures have not stopped falling: that year 22.63 million tons entered; in 2019 they did 13.48 million; and until November of this year 7.18 million were imported, a fall of 41% year-on-year.
At the beginning, the Chinese government closed the arrival of 24 types of solid waste, including plastics. Over the next three years, the list grew to include 56 categories, including vehicle scrap or sawdust. But, despite the ban, companies could request exceptions for the entry of banned material, something that has been put to an end since January 1.
With the entry into force of the total Chinese ban, other neighboring countries may experience increased pressure to receive greater quantities of these materials, a phenomenon that had already begun since Beijing began its gradual veto. A Greenpeace East Asia report from last year indicates that between 2016 and 2018 “most plastics went to less regulated countries and regions.
Southeast Asia, especially, but also other areas that do not have adequate restrictions to prevent excessive imports, or real capacity to process that garbage ”. In addition, according to the study, although exports of plastics were cut in half between those two years, “the old exporters accumulate garbage, unprocessed or improperly processed.”