Waste Not Want Not: Chinese Recyclable Waste Restrictions, Their Global Impact, and Potential U.S. Responses

By Parts, Colin | Chicago Journal of International Law, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

Waste Not Want Not: Chinese Recyclable Waste Restrictions, Their Global Impact, and Potential U.S. Responses


Parts, Colin, Chicago Journal of International Law


I.Introduction

As opportunities for recycling diverse materials increase and natural resources become scarcer, the global recycling trade continues to grow and diversify. Throughout the 2010s, China introduced multiple restrictions on importing recyclable materials, steadily increasing the restrictions and limiting the influx of recyclables into the country.1 China's initial restrictions were largely focused on preventing smuggling and imposing minor contamination limits (limits on the amount of non-recyclable material that is accidentally included in a shipment of recyclable material).2 China's most recent restrictions, however, include outright bans on a variety of materials, as well as contamination limits so low that recyclables processing plants may be unable to produce sufficiently clean recyclables streams.3

These restrictions pose a serious problem for the U.S. and the rest of the international community because China processes an enormous share of the recyclable material produced globally.4 Usually, where one door closes, a window will open. In this case, however, the windows have begun to close as well. Soon after China's more stringent restrictions were implemented, other nearby countries began processing many of the recyclables that had been rejected at Chinese ports.5 But those countries seemingly could not handle either the contamination in the shipments or the influx of recyclables generally, because they have begun to introduce their own restrictions.6 As a result, there is no readily available place to send the U.S.'s recyclables, and the problem of dealing with recyclables grows as more recyclables are produced.

Recyclables are increasingly traded internationally and processed far from where the recyclable materials are first collected.7 Over time a trend has established itself in which developed countries are increasingly sending their waste to developing countries.8 It is likely that this trend is partially motivated by cost considerations, as it may be cheaper for developing countries to process the waste than for developed countries to do so because of their different regulatory frameworks regarding labor and environmental costs.9 One study of recyclables flows noted that "[u]nlike the relatively capital intensive and robustly regulated recycling infrastructure of developed countries, the recycling infrastructure of developing countries is labour intensive, largely in the informal sector, and often with minimal environmental controls."10 The study found that over the 11-year time frame during which it gathered data, flows of recyclable materials to "lowmiddle income" countries steadily replaced the flow of recyclables to "highincome" countries.11 Less a product of policy than profit motivations, this trend has resulted in concentrated recyclables flows towards China (among other nations).12

The U.S. lacks sufficient infrastructure to deal with the Chinese restrictions. Many U.S. recycling facilities are unable to meet the very low contamination levels that China has set, meaning they are unable to export their materials to China. There are also insufficient facilities in the U.S. to process these recyclable materials and create reusable products locally. Accordingly, many U.S. recycling facilities have been forced to put their recyclables in landfills or simply hold onto the materials until some new opportunity for export emerges.13

The U.S.'s trade war with China further weakens the position from which the U.S. could engage in diplomatic negotiations with China over shipments of recyclables. The U.S. and China have both levied millions of dollars of tariffs on goods and it is not apparent that either country is willing to back down.14 This sets a tone decidedly antithetical to diplomatic discussions about how to deal with the U.S.'s overwhelming backlog of recyclable materials.

Diplomatic negotiations aside, the U.S. may have another path to force China's hand in changing its recyclables restrictions: bring a suit in the World Trade Organization (WTO) Dispute Settlement Body. …

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