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China no longer the world's bin

Posted on | By Michael Morel
Beijing, China - China is a land of oversized contradictions. It boasts legions of billionaires and yet still contains hundreds of millions of poor. It offers the most advanced high speed trains in the world and the most sophisticated online censorship apparatus on Earth. It has an official foreign policy of non-intervention yet its global influence is immense.

Perhaps most intriguing is China's environmental paradox. It is simultaneously the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and the world's largest investor in green energy. Much like any industrialising country, China is going through a stage of appalling and widespread pollution. At the same time the UN reports China has invested more in renewable energy than the US, UK, and Japan combined.

This begs the question: will China's environmental contributions ever outweigh its offenses? Encouraging signs are emerging from their evolving waste treatment policies.

Long the world's biggest importer of solid waste for recycling purposes, last month the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection warned the World Trade Organisation of plans to enact new restrictions on incoming waste materials. The draft rules outlaw many types of solid waste while lowering permitted contamination levels for imported materials from 1.5 to 0.3 percent. With a history of contaminated dumping scandals across the country, significant cuts in pollution levels are expected.

Recycling is understood differently in China compared to rich western countries. Many materials are cheaper to recycle than produce in China, so recycling is more of an economic consideration than an environmental one. The bizarre result is that no major Chinese city has an effective recycling programme, yet plastic bottles rarely make it to landfill because enough citizens are able to manage a living from recycling the public's waste. Yet despite the economic incentives of importing so much waste, China is now weighing the environmental costs also.

No longer willing to be the world's garbage dump, China's environmental assertiveness is inspiring. But the ramifications for global trade in waste materials are serious. The UK's Recycling Association, a trade group representing mainly recycled paper waste merchants, has already called on the Chinese government to reconsider their stricter contamination standards. Today a majority of paper collected for recycling in the UK is exported, so China's cuts in imports are a major concern. Other recyclers worldwide fear the list of newly outlawed materials will only grow.

China's new recycling policies will be disruptive to major waste exporters like the US and UK. But this economic pain will teach important lessons. Every country must look after its own environment, and no country deserves to be another's landfill.
China is world’s largest investor in renewable energy
British trade association opposes stricter contaminant limits for exports to China

Story Type: News