File photo: Fred Prouser / Reuters
Amid fears of a potentially devastating trade war between the US and China, Washington has urged Beijing not to implement the ban on US garbage and recyclable materials that Asia's giant threatened to impose last July.
In an effort to battle the "illegal foreign garbage" influx into China, last July China's Ministry of Environmental Protection notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it plans to ban imports of 24 types of solid waste materials, such as soda bottles, mixed paper, recycled steel and newsprint. Despite the threat to implement the ban by the end of the year, the document stated that the "proposed date of adoption" is "to be determined."
Concerned over the massive impact the ban could have on the US economy, on Friday the US trade representative urged China to re-examine its decision.
"We request that China immediately halt implementation and revise these measures in a manner consistent with existing international standards for trade in scrap materials, which provide a global framework for transparent and environmentally sound trade in recycled commodities," the US spokesperson noted at the WTO Council for Trade in Goods session in Geneva.
"China's import restrictions on recycled commodities have caused a fundamental disruption in global supply chains for scrap materials, directing them away from productive reuse and toward disposal," the trade representative pointed out, according to Reuters.
Washington's demand came a day after President Donald Trump ordered the US Trade Representative (USTR) to levy tariffs on at least $50 billion of Chinese imports. Although the USTR was given 15 days by Trump to propose a list of Chinese products that will be targeted, China's commerce ministry has already threatened to take legal action against the US through the WTO. The country is also contemplating targeting 128 American products through an imposition of harsh import tariffs.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also made clear that it has all the necessary means to engage in a trade war with the US but urged Washington to reconsider its aggressive economic policy. Beijing warned that "the American consumers and enterprises will bear the brunt" of a trade war with China.
China is by far the biggest importer of US recyclables. Banning US junk imports will have a catastrophic impact on the US labor market and will drive up waste management costs. According to the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2016 alone American scrap exports to China totaled $5.6 billion and provided the industry with 155,000 jobs. While the Chinese representative at the meeting in Geneva on Friday agreed to relate the US-voiced concerns to Beijing, the envoy still noted that, ultimately, individual countries are responsible for their own waste.
If the Asian giant closes off its waste management market, recycling centers across the US will be faced with a hard choice. They can either hire a much more expensive workforce which would raise prices for their services, require households to sort their own waste or be forced to use more landfills across all fifty US states.
The most viable option would be to redirect the flows of US garbage into third countries, which, however, may not have facilities for safe recycling. This would raise concerns over potential environmental damage, the EU's representative noted at the WTO meeting.
"In any given year, approximately one-third of the scrap recycled in the United States is prepared for shipment to the export market, and China is the recycling industry's largest customer," ISRI President Robin Wiener told China Daily earlier. "This includes more than $1.9 billion in scrap paper and $495 million in scrap plastics. A ban on imports of scrap commodities into China would be catastrophic to the recycling industry."