China No Longer Wants Your Trash. Here’s Why That’s Potentially Disastrous.

On Jan. 1, China made good on its promise to close its borders to several types of imported waste. By the next day, panic had already taken hold in countries across Europe and North America as trash began piling up by the ton, with no one having a clue where to now dispose of it all.

For more than 20 years, China has been the world’s recycling bin, accepting an enormous quantity of recyclable waste from nations worldwide. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals. The U.S. exported 16 million tons of waste to China that year, worth about $5.2 billion. Britain sent China enough garbage to fill up 10,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

It has long been a mutually beneficial arrangement for China and the exporting countries eager to get rid of their mounting waste. But last year, China told the World Trade Organization that it was no longer interested in playing the role of global wastebasket. Beijing said that, beginning in 2018, it would be banning the imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including waste plastics, unsorted scrap paper and waste textiles. It was the most severe step China had taken since it began building its metaphorical “green fence” earlier this decade, which involved measures aimed at reducing the amount of “yang laji,” or foreign trash, that could arrive on its shores.

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