Garbage Gang­sters


The World of Chinese - - Contents - – HATTY LIU

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.

Th­ese gains have not come with­out costs: The State Coun­cil’s pro­posal to ban garbage im­port, dated last July, cited en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age and health risks as the chief rea­sons. Apart from be­ing eye­sores, im­ported trash, par­tic­u­larly haz­ardous met­als from e-waste, can con­tam­i­nate

soil and water at their pro­cess­ing lo­ca­tion. In 2004, Shan­tou Univer­sity re­searchers dis­cov­ered lead poi­son­ing among 80 per­cent of chil­dren un­der 10 in Guiyu, Guang­dong prov­ince—known as China’s “No. 1 E-waste Vil­lage,” where vil­lagers with lit­tle-to-no safety equipment man­u­ally ex­tract up to 225 tons of met­als and plas­tics per year from var­i­ous un­wanted and used gad­gets.

The new ban, while po­ten­tially en­cour­ag­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness in the waste’s coun­try of ori­gin, has proved a boon (if only a tem­po­rary one) for “garbage gangs,” who have long been the bane of cus­toms of­fi­cials for smug­gling in haz­ardous and pre­vi­ously banned types of waste. Ac­cord­ing to re­cent re­ports, the price of plas­tic waste has risen from 5,000 RMB to 8,000 RMB per ton this year since crack­downs be­gan, and smug­glers stand to profit by 10 times the price they pay for banned wastes.

In spite of crack­downs and in­creased in­spec­tions, though, ex­perts be­lieve that a com­plete ban on waste im­ports is not nec­es­sar­ily better for the en­vi­ron­ment. One pro­posed com­pro­mise is im­prov­ing China’s do­mes­tic re­cy­cling sit­u­a­tion, as im­proper han­dling and sep­a­ra­tion of­ten leads Chi­nese re­cy­clables to be con­tam­i­nated with kitchen or even med­i­cal waste, com­pared with trash from abroad. Sheng Min, plas­tic ex­pert at the China Re­new­able En­ergy Re­cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion, also pointed out to South­ern Week­end that im­port­ing plas­tic saves China “thousands of tons” of petroleum—“un­der stan­dard­ized con­di­tions, [waste im­port] is ac­tu­ally an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly in­dus­try.”

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