The United States continues to press China on its restrictions on waste imports, as it has done in various WTO committees over the years. At the March 31 and April 1, 2021 meeting of the Council for Trade in Goods, for which minutes have just recently been circulated by the WTO, the United States raised the issue again. A couple other WTO Members also weighed in, and China offered some responses.
The United States expressed concern with, inter alia, "the overly broad scope of 'solid waste', as it appears in the revised Law [on Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Wastes], which has resulted in an import ban on certain plastic and paper scrap, which are recyclable materials":
15.3. It is unfortunate that the United States must again reiterate its concerns, as expressed previously in this and many other WTO bodies, regarding the negative trade and environmental impacts resulting from China's import ban, and accompanying measures, on certain recovered materials. The United States has circulated a set of written questions and requests that China provide written responses. As the United States has noted previously, in April 2020, China approved a revised Law on Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Wastes. As the United States has indicated before in the CTG and in other bodies, these policy measures seem to contradict China's own pro-circular economy narrative that it is promoting in the WTO and internationally. China is the world's largest processor of scrap materials, and these measures hinder China's aspirations to transition to a more resource-efficient, global, circular economy by directly affecting global recycling networks.
15.4. The United States is very concerned with the overly broad scope of "solid waste", as it appears in the revised Law, which has resulted in an import ban on certain plastic and paper scrap, which are recyclable materials. The United States understands that certain recyclable scrap materials such as bundled newspaper have been banned, whereas other more processed "recycled raw materials", such as copper, aluminium, and brass, are allowed as long as those materials meet strict purity standards. The United States would like to reiterate its request that China explain the scientific bases that it has used to determine which categories of scrap materials it will allow to be imported. These abrupt restrictions and bans have left recyclers without viable alternative processing capacity, and the global shortfall in processing capacity has also caused the decline, and in some cases, collapse, in prices for some recyclable materials.
15.5. Further, the United States is concerned that these policies are detrimental to our shared environment and have resulted in an increased volume of scrap materials going into landfills, or other less desirable waste channels, and becoming marine litter. The United States reiterates its request that China immediately revise the relevant 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 recyclable commodities.
Other WTO Members also weighed in on the issue. New Zealand had concerns about the inclusion of a specific product in China's list of banned imports:
15.7. New Zealand acknowledges and supports the right of all WTO Members to regulate to achieve legitimate domestic health and environmental objectives. New Zealand applauds China's stated proactive policy objectives in relation to sustainable development and encourages valid actions to limit harmful environmental impacts from contaminated waste inside its borders. New Zealand in no way seeks to question China's right to regulate to protect its environment. However, New Zealand remains concerned that vanadium slag is included in China's catalogue of banned imports under this measure. New Zealand reiterates its view that vanadium slag is a purposefully produced co-product with a purposeful end-use in the production of specific forms of steel. It is not a waste product and so should not fall under measures for solid waste. New Zealand understands that China itself is the largest global producer of vanadium slag, and that its production has reportedly increased over 30% since 2018.
15.8. New Zealand would appreciate clarification on how China has ensured that the rules that apply to foreign products are no less favourable than those accorded to domestic products. New Zealand would also be interested to hear a further explanation from China on how it has ensured that the import ban on vanadium slag is not more trade restrictive than necessary to achieve China's environmental and health protection objectives. New Zealand thanks China for its recent engagement on this issue, including bilaterally and at the TBT Committee, and looks forward to further constructive engagement on this topic to better understand China's approach to distinguishing between waste and non-waste materials.
And Canada said that "high-quality scrap products are a valuable raw material for Chinese customers involved in various manufacturing sectors and a key component of a strong circular economy that ultimately helps to reduce waste":
15.10. Canada continues to share the concerns of the United States and would like to reiterate its comments on China's restrictions with respect to solid waste from past CTG meetings. Canada does not wish to dispute China's goal of limiting harmful environmental impacts resulting from contaminated waste material. However, Canada notes that high-quality scrap products are a valuable raw material for Chinese customers involved in various manufacturing sectors and a key component of a strong circular economy that ultimately helps to reduce waste.
China responded to these comments as follows:
15.12. China is still working on the questions that were submitted by the United States. China would like to provide its preliminary responses at this meeting. Since 1 January 2021, China has implemented its import prohibition on solid waste according to China's law on the prevention and control of environmental pollution by solid waste and relevant regulations, with the aim of effectively protecting people's health, ensuring ecosystem safety, and enhancing the treatment of domestic solid waste. As there is no internationally agreed definition and standard on what constitutes solid waste, the definition and the coverage China uses in the law and regulations on solid waste is based on the Basel Convention. China's relevant laws and regulations also stipulate that, if the solid waste, after being properly treated, is not hazardous to people's health and the environment, and complies with the national mandatory quality standards of the relevant products, it will not be considered as solid waste, and can be managed and traded as normal goods. The relevant rules equally apply to domestic and international trade. China has published the national quality standards for recycling materials for brass, copper, cast aluminium alloys, and iron and steel materials, and is working on the relevant standards for recycling paper pulp. WTO Members may export the recycling materials to China in the normal way after ensuring that the solid waste is not hazardous and that it meets China's quality standards for the relevant products.
15.13. China would like to reiterate that the relevant measures taken by China are fully in line with its circular economy policy. The measures not only support environmental protection in developing the circular economy, they also promote the utilization of domestic and international recycling materials. China urges the major solid waste exporting Members to reduce the solid waste at the source and to shoulder their international responsibilities to handle and dispose of their own solid waste rather than exporting millions of tonnes of solid wastes to other Members, in particular developing Members, which already lack capacity to meet environmental challenges.