Customs officers investigate illegally imported solid waste in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province. VCG
In Plastic China, a documentary shot by Wang Jiuliang, Chen Feng (not his real name) makes his living recycling plastic waste imported from developed countries. His family lives among the garbage and his young son often finds “toys” around him. Used plastic injectors are his favorite.
China was once the world’s biggest recipient of overseas trash. Many people like Chen Feng work at centers recycling imported waste, also called foreign garbage.
From Jan 1, 2021, China will make a sweeping ban on all imports of solid waste. The dumping, stacking and disposal of waste products from overseas on Chinese territory will also be banned.
China began importing solid waste in 1980 when the country didn’t have enough raw materials. The recycling of imported waste helped to fill that gap.
Recycling foreign trash, such as plastics, paper and metals, has supported the development of China’s manufacturing sector and further boosted its economy. After being processed, garbage can be turned into materials that can be used to make products, such as chairs and bags. Developed countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan have been the main sources, paying China only around several hundred yuan per ton for recycling.
According to Xinhua, from the mid-1990s to 2016, China’s annual imports of solid waste grew from about 4 million tons to 46.5 million tons. In 2016, China imported more than half of the world’s solid waste.
However, importing this waste has brought more risks than benefits. Waste that can’t be used is either burned or buried, while processing recyclables also leads to rivers, air and land pollution, as well as sickness.
In Guiyu, Guangdong province, once China’s largest disposal center for electronic trash, over 90 percent of kids showed high levels of lead in their blood, according to a report that tracked the health of local children in the years from 2006 to 2013.
In addition, about 10 billion tons of solid waste are produced annually in China, which also has to be handled appropriately.
According to China Daily, the ban taking effect in 2021 is the culmination of policies introduced since 2017 to phase out the import of solid waste. Since 2017, the volume of imported waste has fallen by 68 percent, from 42 million to 13 million tons in 2019.
“The victory of realizing the goal of zero imports of solid waste is in sight,” said Qiu Qiwen, from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.