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China’s ban on trash imports causes major confusion, crisis

The majority of South Korea’s recyclables that are exported overseas go to China. Beijing’s recent decision to ban solid waste imports that it used to purchase is causing a ripple effect on the recycling programs in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province area.

Bags for recycling waste near a residential area in Seoul. Yonhap
Bags for recycling waste near a residential area in Seoul. Yonhap

The ban on imports of 24 types of recyclables -- a reflection of China’s tougher stance on pollution -- mostly impacts local recyclers that used to sell waste to China. Some of the 48 for-profit garbage service companies operating in three metropolitan cities, including Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon said last week that they will halt collecting recyclables banned by China starting April 1, citing low margins and increasing processing cost.

Such moves immediately caused a stir among residents nationwide who see no other option but to put waste like plastics in authorized garbage bags, which is illegal.

The developments prompted the Seoul city government and the Ministry of Environment on Monday to conduct an inspection into plastic waste collection in residential areas after the recyclers refused to pick it up. Later in the day, the ministry announced the result of an emergency meeting with them that they will soon come up with measures to help their businesses stay afloat, adding that the companies that initially refused to collect plastics and vinyl waste agreed to continue collecting them from Monday.

Separately, the ministry said it would promote the proper sorting and recycling of waste at the local level to keep costs down for the recycling companies, while setting up measures to reduce excessive waste.

According to Environment Ministry data requested by The Korea Herald, 127,917 tons of recycled waste, or 65.2 percent, was exported to China, out of the 196,279 tons sold in the international market last year. In 2016, the amount of exported waste to China stood at nearly 78 percent.

Among the items on the ban list are plastic waste or scraps, waste paper, slag, dross, scalings, and waste textile materials.

By Bak Se-hwan (sh@heraldcorp.com)
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