Imported waste makes China world's largest rubbish dump

Posted: 1 April 2007

Author: Jiaquan Wang

Seemingly a winner in the global balance of trade, China is in fact struggling against an undercurrent of imported waste. The country, already laden with domestic pollution, is rapidly becoming the planet's largest garbage dump, facing a huge influx of foreign garbage.

Official statistics on the quantity of waste are not available since smuggling is rampant - even though the country's top environmental, commerce, and customs agencies claim to maintain tight control over waste imports. But an informal estimate, cited in an official environmental research report, claims that of the 80 per cent of the world's e-waste that pours into Asia every year, 90 per cent is dumped in China.

Recycling e-waste, China
Recycling e-waste, China
Recycling e-waste, China. Photo © Greenpeace
Most of this waste, which contains more than 300 kinds of hazardous materials, ends up in small "recycling" workshops, where inadequate disassembling technology leads to the release of toxins into the environment, contaminating rivers, polluting the air and soil, and threatening human health. This environmental deficit has clearly compromised any economic gains China has made, greatly offsetting the country's brawny trade surplus of US$177.4 billion in 2006.

The mounting imported trash, plus China's own domestic e-waste, will only worsen the country's environmental pressures, says Wu Yuping, a researcher with the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and a co-writer of the official research report. She notes that China's domestic e-waste dumping is expected to peak in 10 to 15 years as both population and consumption increase. Given the country's rapid economic growth, China is expected to remain a major global waste absorber until at least 2020, according to the report.

Plastic pollution

"We hope the government can pay enough attention to the problem, though the figures offered by non-governmental organisations are unnecessarily authoritative," says Wu, adding that the official report has been submitted to policymakers. The study, which discusses the external influences on China's environment (and indirectly, its economy), was published in late 2006 but entered the limelight in January after Britain's Sky TV exposed a garbage dumping scandal in China.

The TV investigation disclosed the transfer of large amounts of plastic waste from the United Kingdom to the village of Lianjiao in southern China's Guangdong Province, where workers melt the plastic without protective measures and pour waste directly into rivers. The UK dumped some 1.9 million tons of rubbish into China in 2005, up from only 12,000 tons in 1997, according to the investigation.

International environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace, argue that industrialised countries should be held morally responsible for the unchecked waste outflows, as exporters are violating the Basel Convention that bans the trade of hazardous waste. They note that even though the environmental pressure can be shifted from one country to another, the consequences will ultimately affect the planet as a whole. Critics, on the other hand, argue that China should take responsible for its own problems if it wants to cast off the notorious title of "global rubbish dump," quoting the Chinese saying "flies go for cracked eggs."

Lianjiao Village and Guangdong province are not the only dumping sites for large amounts of foreign trash. Since China reported its first exotic garbage dumping case in the early 1990s, foreign waste has found its way from coastal areas to inland provinces such as Jiangxi and Hunan, and even the capital Beijing.

Controls missing

Fueling the flood of foreign rubbish is an unhealthy chain of market supply and demand. As the world's largest developing country, China is thirsting for resources to fuel its robust economic growth and views waste recycling as an alternative source of supply. This demand for materials appears to match the desire of industrialised countries to shift the burden of waste treatment (which is often more costly than shipment) to other countries.

Experts calculate that the import of every 10,000 tons of waste material provides 1,000 jobs in China, saves 1.2 million tons of raw materials and 10 million watts of electricity, and creates 100 million yuan (US$12.8 million [£6m]) worth of production. As a result, some recycling experts maintain that it is necessary for the country to build a global recycling mechanism to offset its own resource consumption.

Even environmentalists do not object to the fact that waste can, and should, be turned into wealth. But they uphold one prerequisite: The process must meet environmental demands. They say it is unwise to encourage waste imports without effective supervision and control, no matter how valuable the material might be.

The story of Lianjiao reflects a wider challenge in Chinese environmental protection efforts: polluting companies are under the protection of local governments, since waste recycling has become a major source of revenue for many localities. That means that highly polluting recycling workshops can remain active for years in defiance of environmental supervision. Despite the central government's repeated warnings against seeking economic growth at the cost of the environment, the waste recycling industry remains the backbone of the local economy in some areas.

Legal changes

Legal experts and environmentalists are calling on the government to mend loopholes in the country's legal system that allow for the influx of foreign waste. Zhou Ke, an environmental law professor with Beijing-based Renmin University of China, says the lack of an unassailable ban on waste imports and corresponding severe punishment may be the root cause of the problem.

While Chinese legislation formally bans the import of foreign solid waste, a vague exception permits the entry of recyclable waste material. This creates a loophole that, once opened, is not easily stemmed, says Professor Zhou. And the loophole could be widened further as importers buy hazardous wastes in the name of recycling, rendering the waste ban impotent. Zhou suggests that the law instead list specific categories of waste that are permitted to enter the country.

Chinese criminal law is also obscure with regard to punishments for waste smuggling. It distinguishes the illegal import of wastes from other smuggling violations, resulting in lighter penalties for the offense, according to Zhou. He adds that it is time to renew the nation's laws when China is confronted with rising environmental challenges from both home and abroad.

At the latest annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislative body, several lawmakers called for a strict ban on the import of e-waste. They also tabled a motion to develop a specific law on e-waste recycling, which will be studied by the NPC environmental protection committee.

Four months before Sky TV disclosed the Lianjiao plastic waste scandal, Chinese Customs and the State Environmental Protection Administration launched a campaign to check illegal imports of foreign waste. The campaign is expected to last until the end of June. Customs authorities also aim to work more closely with their foreign counterparts, asking officials elsewhere to help check possible waste smuggling. Meanwhile, SEPA has begun negotiating with European Union environment agencies on the crackdown of illegal transboundary waste flows.

Jiaquan Wang is a senior journalist with Xinhua News Agency in Beijing.

This article was co-ordinated by the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute, for the Worldwatch Institute's China Watch project. Outside contributions to China Watch reflect the views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Worldwatch Institute.

Copyright Worldwatch Institute. http://www.worldwatch.org