China plan to ban waste imports threatens US exports

China plan to ban waste imports threatens US exports

China's ban on waste imports would have wide-ranging implications were it to take effect.

China’s notification to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it will no longer import solid waste by the end of this year imperils 8.2 percent, or nearly 1 million TEU, of all containerized US exports, according to an analysis of data from PIERS.

The WTO will accept comments on the proposed ban until July 20, at which point it will begin deliberations on whether or not the ban is allowable under the rules and regulations of the WTO, which allow for bans on trade if those bans do not prioritize domestic industry and producers. WTO members' autonomy to determine their own environmental objectives has been reaffirmed on a number of occasions, and there are specific carve outs from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade for the environment, according to the WTO website.

The ban would restrict US exports of waste paper; waste from the manufacture of iron or steel; ash and residues containing arsenic, metals, or their compounds; plastic waste; wool and animal hair waste; garnetted stock of wool or animal hair; cotton waste; man-made fiber waste; and used and worn out twine, rope, cables, and cordage.

“We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” China said in its filing to the WTO. “This polluted China's environment seriously. To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”

Underscoring just how essential waste exports are to the US export trade, three of the top five exporters on’s Top 100 US Exporters rankings ship paper or plastic waste for processing internationally. Recyclables made up 30 percent of Top 100 exporters, according to PIERS, a sister product of

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has said it will fight the ban. The group said it has heard China is considering expanding the ban to include other scrap materials.

“Upon receiving this information, ISRI immediately briefed US officials in preparation for tomorrow’s US-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue in Washington,” the group said.

If the ban takes effect, US exporters of these commodities will lose access to the destination where they shipped 77.8 percent of their products last year, according to PIERS. India is the second-largest market for US exports of these commodities, with a share of 7.9 percent. South Korea (4.4 percent), Indonesia (2.1 percent), and Taiwan (1.3 percent) round out the top 5.

Of the banned commodities, wastepaper made up 88.2 percent, or 1.2 million of the total 1.4 million TEU exported in 2016, with plastic parings and scraps making up 11.2 percent, or 155,967 TEU.

In addition to forcing waste exporters to search for new markets, the ban will make it more difficult for container lines to position empty containers to China to be refilled with goods for export. Rates on some trade lanes could also be impacted depending on how strong demand for space is on certain routes, if US waste exporters are only able to access a limited amount of markets.

Contact Dustin Braden at and follow him on Twitter: @dustin_joc.