[SCMP Column] Our global trash challenge

December 08, 2018

“You can screw up a lot of the global trade system just by stopping a few things,” says Daniel Hoornweg, associate professor of energy systems and nuclear science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. And no, he was not talking about the China-US trade war. He was talking about trash.

Though, come to think of it, why was trash not part of the steak dinner conversation between President Xi and Donald Trump in Buenos Aires a week ago? After all, China’s “National Sword” policy to halt import of a wide range of garbage, introduced from January this year to begin to clean up its environment, has created a waste disposal crisis across the globe, and stalled a massive US export industry.

A research team from the University of Georgia in the US has calculated that China has taken in more than 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste since 1992, and over a half of some other forms of solid waste. In 2016 alone, China imported more than 7 million tons of trash, adding onto the nearly 61 million tons that the country produced itself. Based on these trends, the researchers then estimated that because of the National Sword ban on importing trash, 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be stranded by 2030.

The reality is that for the better part of the past three decades, as countries like Japan and Germany were boasting to the world about the radical new initiatives they were taking to recycle their waste and reduce pollution, their dirty little secret was that the vast majority of their nasty waste was simply being shipped to China.

Through 2016, before China’s import ban came into force, US recyclers employing over 155,000 people exported 37m tonnes of waste, worth US$16.5bn – and one third of this went to China, amounting to 4,000 shipping containers per day. One California recycler alone – with the suspiciously Chinese name of America Chung Nam – exported 333,900 containers. At home, the US recycled just 9 per cent of its plastic waste, with most simply going into landfill.

Germany, regarded as a world leader in recycling, still exported 70 per cent of its waste to China, while Japan, the world’s third largest exporter of plastic waste after the EU and the US, shipped 72 per cent of its waste to China in 2017. The global industry in waste trade has grown nine-fold since 1992, with trade in plastics growing from nothing in 1990 to around 16m tonnes a year since 2010.

As Jenna Jambach, head of the University of Georgia research team, asked: “Where will the plastic waste go now?” Just as China has over the past 30 years provided the world – and in particular the big consumers in the US – with a “deflationary gift” by producing consumer goods at a fraction of the price that would have arisen if those goods had continued to be made at home, so it has also provided an “environmental gift” by taking the fast-growing trash crisis off our hands.

Both “gifts” have now expired, leaving most of the world’s rich, high-consuming economies with the prospect of significantly-more-expensive consumer goods, and nowhere to dump them when we throw them away. As I noted in August last year, the habit of big-consumption, big-waste economies like the US playing “pass the parcel” with the waste problem, simply filling containers and letting Chinese scavengers in trash cities like Guiyu in Guangdong deal with their environmental profligacy, has been brought to a juddering halt. We can no longer simply duck the increasingly grave environmental challenge being generated by our hyper-consumptive life-styles.

Writ small, this is as much a problem in Hong Kong as it is in the US, Germany or Japan. China’s National Sword waste-import ban has created its own crisis here – where we recycle an embarrassing 1 per cent of our plastic waste – and prompted many to run to Beijing asking for special exemption. They are likely to be shouting into deaf ears, leaving no option but to deal much more credibly and sustainably with our own waste here at home (amounting to 1.4kg per person per day, twice the amount thrown by our counterparts in Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei) and perhaps at last persuading the government to introduce mandatory “Pay as you Throw” charges.

So far, China’s pre-emptive ban seems to have caused more noise than action among the trash exporters so far managing to “kick the can down the road”. The US has protested to the World Trade Organisation, demanding that China better justifies its import ban – as if it was not enough to say “we are burying ourselves under our own and everyone else’s trash, and need to stop before we inflict permanent harm at home”.

US, German and Japanese recyclers have also diverted their export traffic to willing economies in south east Asia, like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam (where, perversely, Chinese waste recyclers have been keen to invest to help these countries absorb the garbage flow).

But governments in these economies have begun to strangle this diversion as they wise up to the reality that they can’t even deal adequately with their own trash, without adding to the problem by accepting imports.

China plans by 2020 to make its waste-import ban a total ban (at present the banned list covers 24 categories of goods, expanding to 32 categories at the end of this year), at which point our big-consuming economies will fast be approaching an unavoidable moment of truth, at last taking full and direct responsibility for our wasteful ways.

It may not be part of Donald Trump’s tariff war agenda, but in this area at least, the US seems set to bring its jobs home. Bringing its waste back home at the same time might not have been exactly what he had been planning.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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