In recent years, the United States has raised many fundamental issues related to China's participation in the WTO, but one smaller issue that has flown under the radar is China's import ban on solid waste, which continues to be a point of contention between the two countries. The main aspects of the dispute here are: 1) the practical impact and scope of the ban, and 2) procedural requirements related to China's notification obligations at the WTO.

We previously reported on the discussion of China’s solid waste import ban that took place at the October 2020 meeting of the WTO Committee on Import Licensing (and also one at the Committee on Customs Valuation). The United States was concerned that “abrupt restrictions and progressively restrictive bans had left many United States recyclers without viable alternative processing capacity,” and that “China’s scrap ban was having a detrimental effect on global recycling markets and might, in fact, cause more environmental damage than good in the long-term.”

China responded to these concerns by saying that “solid waste was different from other normal goods due to its inherent polluting attributes [and] contaminants and residues generated by the disposal process of solid waste caused serious environmental pollution and harmed human, animal, and plant health heavily.” China also “hoped that exporting countries could live up to their international responsibilities to handle and dispose of their own solid waste rather than seeking to realize benefits at the cost of the environment of other countries.”

The two countries picked up on this issue again at the April 2021 meeting of the Committee on Import Licensing, for which the minutes were just made public (WTO Document G/LIC/M/52). At the April meeting, the United States continued to press its arguments on this issue, and asked China a series of questions about the measures:

5.1. The representative of the United States said that her delegation had significant concerns about the changes to import licensing surrounding China's implementation of its import ban on solid waste imports, including recyclable materials such as certain plastic and paper scrap, while allowing certain "recycled raw materials", such as copper, aluminium, and brass, to be imported as long as those materials met strict purity standards. She recalled that the United States had raised the issue of certain recyclable materials at several previous meetings of this Committee, and that, in addition, the United States had requested China to notify to the Committee any changes made to its import licensing regime. Unfortunately, China had yet to provide any information about its current licensing procedures for recycled raw materials or other imports, along with updates on any planned changes that would have been sufficient to alleviate US concerns. She added that the United States also had concerns over the ban on certain scrap materials, such as bundled recycled newspaper, when other more processed scrap materials, such as pulped paper, and "smelter-ready" metals, were permitted. She addressed the following questions to China:

- whether China could explain the scientific basis it had used to determine which categories of scrap materials were safe and which were not;

- whether China could explain the new import licensing requirements under this policy and state when it would notify these changes to this Committee;

- whether China would be developing a written regulation for importation, including what was "contaminated" or "clean", and what materials were allowed for importation, and, if yes, when;

- whether China would be notifying to the WTO its requirements for import, including relevant contamination requirements, which it had implemented for the importation of recycled raw materials;

- lastly, whether China could explain how these policies were consistent with China's pro-circular economy narrative, given that China appeared to include recyclable materials within the scope of "solid waste".

5.2. Going forward, she said that her delegation would also ask that China adhere to its notification obligations in a timely manner under the Agreement on Import Licensing Procedures with respect to any new import measures. Finally, she reiterated her delegation's prior request that China halt its implementation of the existing and planned measures. She restated that China's scrap ban was having a detrimental effect on global recycling markets and might, in fact, cause more environmental damage than good in the long term.

China responded with an update on developments, as part of which it noted that its aim with these measures was "to effectively protect public health and ecosystem safety":

5.3. The representative of China said that his delegation took note of the concerns raised by the delegation of the United States. He said that, for the sake of time, and to the extent that they had already provided replies to this issue in various other WTO bodies, his delegation would not repeat in full its statement made at previous meetings of this Committee. He nevertheless highlighted the latest developments on this issue. From 1 January 2021, China had banned all imports of solid waste according to China's law on the prevention and control of environmental pollution by solid waste and relevant regulations, with the aim to effectively protect public health and ecosystem safety. Currently, China was working on the WTO notification of the above-mentioned measures and would notify them pursuant to the notification requirements of the relevant WTO Agreements. In addition, China had published national quality standards for recycling materials such as brass, copper, cut aluminium alloy, and iron and steel materials. Recycling materials complying with China's national quality standards and presenting no hazard to human health and the environment, were not regarded as solid waste and could be imported normally. Finally, he said that China urged major solid waste-exporting Members to reduce solid waste at source and ensure that they lived up to their international responsibilities to handle and dispose of their own solid waste.

No other WTO Members offered views on the issue.