- According to a new filing with the World Trade Organization (WTO), China plans to stop accepting imports of 24 kinds of solid waste materials by the end of the year. This would include certain types of scrap plastic, paper, textiles and slag from manufacturing iron or steel, as reported by Reuters.
- The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) told Waste Dive that it has already notified the U.S. Trade Representative and Department of Commerce, and briefed officials ahead of today's U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue.
- In a statement, ISRI President Robin Wiener said the ban could have a "devastating impact" on the recycling industry due to its economic implications. "If implemented, a ban on scrap imports will result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and closure of many recycling businesses throughout the United States," said Wiener. "A ban on imports of scrap commodities into China would be catastrophic to the recycling industry.”
ISRI recently raised concerns about the potential for such a move by China, and the details in this WTO filing bear many similarities to the rumors ISRI discussed at the time. This latest policy is a separate and potentially much more serious one than the ongoing "National Sword" crackdown on smuggling that has already affected some recycling imports this year. While the Chinese government has expressed interest in encouraging more domestic recycling, and in-turn reducing the need for overseas imports, that isn't mentioned as part of its rationale on the WTO filing.
Instead, the form filed by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection on July 18 talks about the need to reduce "foreign garbage" imports in terms of environmental concerns. It states, "...we found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China's environment seriously. To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted."
According to ISRI, about one-third of all scrap recycled in the U.S. is exported and China is the industry's biggest customer. More than $5.6 billion in scrap commodities were exported to them last year — including $1.9 billion of scrap paper and $495 million of scrap plastics — and this is seen as "the first link in the global manufacturing supply chain." Recent ISRI analysis estimated that these scrap exports are responsible for more than $28 billion in economic activity per year and the overall scrap recycling industry generates nearly $117 billion. This also includes tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs.
Some have argued that in the long-term, the U.S. could see more economic benefit by investing in its domestic recycling infrastructure, possibly through a proposal such as the Zero Waste Development and Expansion Act that would provide $100 million in grants for such projects. This is seen as compatible with President Trump's "America First" agenda and job creation goals. Though in the short-term, any disruption to the existing system could have wide-ranging effects in the recycling commodities market and will require more immediate action.