A global crackdown operation on solid waste smuggling shows that China is playing a leading role in international joint operations, and countries in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam and Thailand, have become the new victims in the illegal trade since China rolled out restrictions on solid waste imports.
Officials from the UN and the World Customs Organization are calling on developed countries to work with developing countries more closely and adopt better policies and technologies to solve the world’s recycling woes.
A global crackdown operation on solid waste smuggling shows that China is playing a leading role in international joint operations. Officials from the UN and the World Customs Organization (WCO) are calling on developed countries to work with developing countries more closely and adopt better policies and technologies to solve the world’s recycling woes.
Cross-border environmental crimes are increasingly rampant today, involving an estimated $260 billion every year, a figure which is still growing, said former United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) chief Erik Solheim, speaking in a video message to a summary conference about cross-border waste smuggling in Shanghai on November 20, the same day he resigned from his post.
“This mission cannot be undertaken by any country alone, not China alone. Combating environmental crime across borders requires strong collaboration between countries,” Solheim said in the message.
The China-initiated Demeter IV mission took place over 64 days from May 21 to July 23, and involved 15 international organizations, including the WCO, UNEP, global police forces, and 75 solid waste importing and exporting countries and regions. Through the WCO Customs Enforcement Network communication system, these regions reported a cumulative total of 214 seizures, issued 37 warnings and seized 326,000 tons of solid waste.
The first Demeter operation was launched in 2009 as way to engage multilateral cooperation in detecting and halting cross-border waste smuggling from Europe to Asia and Africa. The Shanghai conference, organized by China Customs and the WCO, was held on November 20, where 150 representatives from 53 members and 11 international organizations gathered to debate the issues surrounding waste smuggling.
A report on the Demeter IV mission was issued by the WCO Asia/Pacific Regional Intelligence Liaison Office at the Shanghai meeting. Revealing new trends in waste smuggling, the report found that although the main route is still from Europe to Asia, the destinations now focus on Southeast Asia, including Vietnam and Thailand.
This proves that China’s restrictions on solid waste imports have been working. In recent years, the Chinese government has taken a series of measures to tighten solid waste imports. From January 1, 2018, China banned the import of 24 types of solid waste, including waste plastics and waste slag, significantly reducing the type and quantity of waste imports. From December 31, the list will be expanded to cover 32 types of solid waste, according to a recent government document.
These measures have left major waste exporting nations, including the US and Australia, scrambling to find alternatives. Media reports that Thailand may become a “global trash country.” Other countries, including Poland and some West African nations, have upped the level of waste they are accepting too.
Ricardo Treviño Chapa, Deputy Secretary General of the WCO, said during the Shanghai meeting that before the implementation of China’s import waste restrictions, China took in around 50 percent of the total solid waste produced in the world. He told the Global Times that developed countries need to find alternative destinations to dump solid waste or find new ways to recycle.
“Solid waste smuggling is still rampant after China tightened imports. Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam have become new destinations, and they are adopting similar measures as China,” said Treviño.
Treviño said that another change found during Demeter IV is that most of the evidence that led to arrests or seizures came from recipient countries, whereas going back to the first Demeter operation, 60 percent of the evidence came from the source countries.
China’s restrictions on solid waste imports have triggered an enormous transformation in the global recycling industry, Solheim said in his video address. He said he had visited China not long ago, and mentioned the changes that have taken place in Guiyu, in South China’s Guangdong Province.
“Guiyu was known as a destination for electronic trash,” Solheim said. “The increasing pollution contaminated local living resources such as the air and water, but now we’ve seen big improvement there.”
Ni Yuefeng, Minister of the General Administration of Customs of China, said in his keynote speech in Shanghai that the Demeter operation was “a pioneering success” in international collaboration. China’s restrictions on trash imports is not just intended to block trash from other countries, but to promote the establishment and improvement of a sustainable global recycling system.
“The effort is to awaken public awareness of the recycling economy in the whole chain of production, sale, consumption, use, and waste and realize sustainable development,” Ni noted.
The illegal cross-border transfer of solid waste causes serious damage to the global ecological environment. More than 10 billion tons of waste is generated in urban areas annually across the world. Much of this waste flows to developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America through illegal means, causing severe damage to the ecological environment in the recipient countries.
Treviño echoed Ni in an interview with the Global Times after the conference. “I don’t think China’s decision is to simply reject foreign trash. China needs to reduce the risk of environmental problems and protect the natural environment,” he said.
“At the same time, other countries should also take their own responsibility,” Treviño said, adding that developed countries should work with developing countries to adopt better policies and technical means to recycle trash.