China’s ban on 洋垃圾 foreign garbage leaves U.S. cities looking to take the trash out

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It’s called yang laji 洋垃圾 or “foreign garbage,” and China doesn’t want it anymore.

That’s creating a problem for the United States and other nations that have long sold dirty recyclable materials to China, shipping it overseas to let Beijing deal with the environmental impact of paper, plastics and metal.

China announced earlier this year that it will no longer accept 24 kinds of solid waste, which amounted to 47 million metric tons in 2015. The materials it will accept need to be clean and free of contaminants that are commonly in the waste stream. “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,” the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said when notifying the World Trade Organization.

“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.”

The U.S. isn’t the only country alarmed by the import ban, which goes into effect in 2018. The European Union, Australia, Canada and Korea all have asked China and WTO for more information.

Yet in the U.S., that ban means figuring out what to do with two-thirds of America’s waste paper and 40 percent of its recyclable plastics. It’s alarming to municipal leaders who don’t know what they’re going to do with their trash, along with highly impacted businesses and the trade organizations representing them.

In Oregon, as of Tuesday, 12 recycling companies have received permission to send their overflowing recycling piles to the landfill as a last resort. “Given the unprecedented market conditions, recycling processors are now struggling to find markets to accept mixed paper or plastics,” the state explained.

In Wyoming, the City of Durango collects 30 percent of residential and business waste for recycling, but the China ban means a lost revenue stream because of a profit-sharing arrangement with its service provider. For Durango – and likely for cities elsewhere – that may mean a rate hike to cover waste costs.

It’s hard to fault China. The country that’s notoriously lax on enforcing clean air and other environmental protections is trying to change, in part influenced by an emerging global leadership role on climate as the United States steps away from its commitments. As China presses its “One Belt One Road” initiative with other regions, notably in Asia and Africa, those diplomatic relationships and deals are rooted in paying at least lip service to environmental issues – although it remains to be seen how well Beijing intends to clean up its own house.

That includes its own trash, which is piling up in mountains outside of Beijing and elsewhere as China’s middle class grows and with it, so does consumption. In a country that’s generating 520,000 tons of its own trash every day, according to World Bank, the same volume of recyclable materials that once fed the country’s enormous manufacturing sector doesn’t need to be imported anymore.

So, a lot less yang laji.

How can you help? Try to avoid packaging and related waste as much as possible, and make sure anything you do put in the recycling is clean and belongs there.

Image: U.S. National Institutes of Health

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