China’s trash ban leads to illicit smuggling, debate on domestic recycling

China’s ban on recyclables imports—hotly protested by the US in the two countries’ ongoing trade war—has led to a boom in illegally smuggled trash across its borders.

Since the State Council initiated the ban in January, Chinese customs officials have broken up 39 garbage gangs and investigated 248 cases, totaling 95.6 tons of smuggled wastepaper, textiles, plastics, and other household and industrial cast-offs, all destined for ad hoc “recycling villages” on the south-eastern coast, eventually to be processed and reused as raw materials for local factories.

China began importing waste in the 1980s, to meet urgent demand for materials for its industrial boom. The country grew to become the world’s largest waste importer, taking 56 percent of the world’s trash annually—and 70 percent of all trash from the US—until this year. Domestically, the garbage import and recycling industry was valued at 3.7 billion USD in 2016.

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author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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