Chinese recyclers struggle shifting to eco-friendly businesses since ban on foreign waste

By Hu Yuwei and Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/21 18:33:40

China engaged in nationwide customs combat against smuggling of overseas garbage

China is at war with overseas waste following the ban on imported garbage in a drive to purify the environment

The campaign against waste smuggling is given higher priority over drugs and ivory smuggling

Garbage recycling enterprises are closing, many turning to raise succulent plants


Workers dismantle electronic waste at a government-sponsored recycling park in the township of Guiyu, Guangdong Province, January 12. Photo: VCG

China's General Administration of Customs in early April conducted its second round of the "Blue Sky 2018" - a special campaign against overseas rubbish smuggling.

During the campaign, law enforcers confiscated 111,100 tons of smuggled solid waste across the border and smashed 25 smuggling rings in just five days.

After China's foreign garbage ban took effect on January 1, a nationwide customs battle was under way to further crack down upon the smuggling of overseas garbage.

China's "war on pollution" is designed to purify the environment and move up the domestic waste recycling supply chain.

Implementing the ban has been one of the customs department's priorities this year, but its lucrative nature still drives many to smuggle scrap from overseas.

Heightened crackdown

Earlier this year, the General Administration of Customs announced China's "National Sword 2018" campaign to clamp down on five major areas of smuggling.

The movement prioritizes the crackdown on foreign garbage smuggling as "Project No.1," with greater significance than drugs and ivory smuggling.

"This is a sign to show China's determination in keeping overseas garbage out of the country," Liu Jianguo, a professor of the School of Environment, Tsinghua University, told the Global Times.

"The relevant institutions such as environmental protection and quality inspection departments are now working together to promote a comprehensive campaign against illegal operations in an obviously concerted manner, with an effort much stronger than before," Liu added.

In Zhuhai, South China's Guangdong Province, the customs department deployed 100 officers, 23 vehicles, four ships and even drones in a crackdown campaign on January 8, according to official reports.

As the crackdown intensifies, new smuggling tricks have emerged. Due to the profitable market but compressed space in this now-illegal industry, it is possible to reinitialize black trading, said Wang Qi, director of the Institute of Environmental Engineering Technology from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

Means of smuggling

Before the ban, the main methods of smuggling foreign garbage included mixing prohibited waste with other goods that look similar in appearance, Sheng Min, president of China Plastic Recycling Association, a branch organization of China National Resources Recycling Association, told the Global Times.

For instance, concealing forbidden waste slag secretly into the bags of imported ore is hard for customs officers to detect because of a difficulty in distinguishing them visually.

Southern Weekly quoted a customs official from Zhangjiagang, East China's Jiangsu Province, as saying that the lack of testing expertise is a major challenge in their work.

As the pattern of solid waste smuggling continues, customs departments are aware of the need of upgrading their detection capabilities. The number of agencies that formally accept customs commissions to identify solid waste has increased from three to 10.

Another common waste-smuggling method is misusing waste import permits. Typically, those with permission to import waste transfer their licenses to private factories that are ineligible to import the solid waste with compensation.

Smaller enterprises illegally importing scraps have little capacity to handle the waste properly to meet environmental standards. This type of "secondary sale" not only damages the environment, but also poses a serious threat to the health of the nation.

Sheng Min told the Global Times that private transactions are much less than before the ban. The police are deploying more resources and manpower to track down the original license-holder and using GPS to track the location of their containers.

But he suggests that this behavior has largely been contained especially since the ban was formally implemented. "Because most of the small factories without capacity to deal with the smuggled waste were shut down on a large scale, the market space is greatly compressed. There is little appetite anymore for them to break the law."

A sharp reduction in the number of license holders this year also contributed to the decline. On May 15, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced the approval of the new batch of waste import permits application, but only four waste plastics processing enterprises were issued a license.

China has issued 12 batches of solid waste import approvals this year, restricting the total amount of imported waste plastics to 55,462 tons, down 99 percent from the same period of last year.

Eco-friendly alternatives

As the crackdown on imported wastes intensifies, Chinese waste recyclers - whose main sources of supply are imported wastes - are undergoing a painful shift as they scramble to upgrade their business models.

Chen Qiyao, a recycler in Guiyu, South China's Guangdong Province, is worried about the lack of supply of raw materials. Previously processing imported e-waste, he now can recycle only domestic e-waste.

Guiyu was once the most notorious and largest e-waste disposal sites in the world. Hundreds of small businesses and workshops reduced imported machinery to their smallest components and then sold the parts to recyclers.

While this brought income to locals and migrant workers, it also resulted in major health issues, as the town often made international headlines for its toxic pollution from burning plastic and circuit boards.

Chen told that before 2013, imported e-waste entered Guiyu through a variety of channels, including ports in Shenzhen and Dalian. Some e-waste entered via Vietnam. But since 2016, it has been increasingly difficult for foreign waste to enter China.

Chen said that imported wastes are more profitable, as they are often of better quality than domestic waste.

This was echoed by Li He, owner of a recycling company in Guiyu, which dismantles over 10 tons of waste every day.

"If I could recycle imported waste, who would work on domestic waste? Among imported e-waste, you can sometimes find usable bits; some can even be sold as second-hand items. But domestic e-waste is real garbage," he told

For many recyclers of imported waste, shifting their businesses to domestic waste has been difficult due to the lack of stable supplies and clients. "Recycling is a tough business, and recycling domestic waste is even harder," Peng Jianguo, a recycler, told

Peng has been working in the recycling business in Guangdong since the 1970s. Last June, he and his son started to sort domestic plastic waste.

Peng said that most domestic wastes are secondary plastic rather than virgin materials. The efficiency of sorting and recycling secondary plastic is much lower than imported plastics.

In Shiqiao village, Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province, home to nearly 200 waste plastic recyclers, many former recyclers have closed their businesses and shifted to new and more technically demanding business models, including raising succulent plants.

Mao Hongbin, a former recycler, earned over 200,000 yuan (31,540) annually from his plastics factory, but he closed it after the village launched a campaign targeting workshops that did not meet environmental standards.

"On the one hand, competition has been fierce, and on the other hand, the environmental requirement on factories became higher. So I shifted to eco-friendly agriculture," Mao told Xinhua Daily.

Although Mao's greenhouse has yet to break even, he is confident about the future of an eco-friendly industry. The most expensive plant in his greenhouse, the haworthia (miniature aloes from Africa), can sell for 7,000 to 8,000 yuan on the market, as it takes four years to grow.

Among the 10 succulent planters currently in Shiqiao village, eight are former plastic waste recyclers. Some have reached a revenue of 500,000 each year.

Newspaper headline: Overseas scrap

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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