China will officially stop the import of solid waste starting on January 1, 2021, due to the mainland’s new “green” economic policy and environmental focus.
What’s Behind China’s Ban on Solid Waste?
Xinhua reports that the ban is the follow-up to the 2017 policy that stopped the import of 14 types of solid waste, such as a textile waste. China started purchasing solid waste in the 1980s and has been the world’s largest importer since then.
The waste import ban is not new, either. In 2019, several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries returned tons of toxic waste to exporting countries such as the UK, Germany, Canada, and Hong Kong.
As BBC notes, the United States is the largest single plastic waste exporting nation, while the European Union (EU) is the biggest exporter of solid waste overall. A Greenpeace report said that 78 percent of the US plastic trash goes to countries with less advanced waste management systems such as Malaysia.
Buying and Selling Waste: All About the Money
Exporting and importing waste may sound negative and outmoded, but the reality is not that simple. As long as there is a supply of and demand for solid waste then the trade will continue. Patrick Moore, a veteran environmentalist and a former director of Greenpeace, told InsideOver that developed countries ship their waste to developing nations because companies in those countries want it.
“You cannot put a box of waste and send it if they don’t want it. The word waste is not right. If someone uses something, it is no waste. They will pay US $1 per pound for plastic waste and will create something to make money,” Moore said, adding that the word “dumping” is not correct, as developed nations sell their waste and the recycling cost is high in developed nations.
So, what about solutions?
Waste-to-Energy as a Potential Solution
Moore — who is now an independent environmentalist with Ecosense Environmental Inc. — highlights the use of unwanted combustible materials as energy, noting that this is in keeping with countries who are trying to turn to renewable energy.
“There is lot of unwanted waste — which is not good for recycling. Dirty plastic, dirty paper, pieces of woods full of nails from construction demolition. Those are perfectly good for burning and making energy, which is useful,” Moore explained.
Moore cited Japan and some countries in Europe with an advanced technology that converts waste into energy, saying that waste goes to landfill for recycling and is turned into energy.
A January 2019 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that China has the largest installed waste-to-energy capacity of any country globally, producing 7.3 gigawatts across 339 plants since the end of 2017. This sector has grown 1 GW annually in average for the past five years, representing the largest form of biodoverse energy and managing 100 million tons of solid waste per year.
The global market for waste-to-energy plants is projected to rise by 6.5 percent from 2020 to 2025. The European Union has 492 waste-to-energy plants that can generate electricity for 18 million people, while Japan has 380 waste-to-energy plants.
Waste-to-energy is more reliable than solar and wind energy as nobody can predict when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. Also, solar and wind energy is more costly than waste-based energy.
“Places like hospitals need electricity 24 hours and backup power from diesel is expensive,” Moore noted.
Everybody is busy finding mistakes and making things look bad
Efforts to reduce pollution, stop killing animals, and removing toxic waste are positive ways to protect the environment and there are many worthy causes for environmentalists to get behind. However, Moore stated that some of the green movement’s campaigns are also misguided such as in the case of opposing waste-to-energy solutions.
“They are opposed to burning waste which is not suitable for recycling, coal, burning woods, resulting in the lack of support for waste-to-energy option,” Moore explained, adding that this is why there are few waste-to-energy plants in the US and Canada.
China’s import ban will primarily mean two things: it will make Beijing look good as they begin improving their energy production and make developed nations look bad — and miss out on a valuable renewable energy solution — as they continue to ship out tons of waste to other less-developed nations around the world.