In the WTO’s Committee on Customs Valuation, the U.S. recently asked China about certain restrictions on imports of waste materials. The U.S. questions/comments and Chinese response (WTO Document G/VAL/W/369, 9 December 2020) were as follows.

U.S. questions/comments:

1. The United States would also like to reiterate its continuing concern with the measures China notified related to the import of scrap materials. As repeatedly expressed in other WTO meetings, the United States has significant concerns about China’s measures that ban or severely limit the import of scrap materials. Since 2017, China has issued successive measures that outright ban or effectively ban the import of a number of scrap materials with little or no prior notice or comment period. Furthermore, the 2019 revisions of its draft Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Wastes, continue to define “solid waste” to include all scrap materials, and expressly ban these imports despite concerns raised by the United States and other stakeholders. To be clear, scrap materials (1) have been separated from the waste stream for recycling as a raw material and (2) are saleable items traded within a distinct global marketplace (i.e., they have an underlying economic value). These qualities make the inclusion of scrap materials as “waste” inaccurate.

2. We are concerned both with the overly broad scope of China’s import control measures related to scrap materials and with what appear to be different requirements for foreign and domestic commodities. We reiterate our request that China immediately halt implementation of its ban and 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 recycled commodities.

Chinese response:

China is vigorously promoting ecological progress, actively implementing the concept of sustainable development and green development, to meet people’s growing demand for a beautiful ecological environment and strive to resolve prominent environmental problem. Advancing the reform of the solid waste import management system is one of the important measures taken by the Chinese government to thoroughly implement the new development concept, safeguard the country’s ecological environment safety and protect people’s health.

In the process of adjusting relevant policies, China has taken full account of the demands of the domestic and international communities, adjusted the catalogue gradually, reserved sufficient transitional periods for relevant industries, and fulfilled the obligations of transparency in accordance with WTO rules. In July 2017, China notified the WTO TBT Committee that it would ban the import of 24 types of solid waste, including plastics waste, unsorted paper waste, raw textile materials waste and vanadium slag etc. by the end of 2017, with a transitional period of up to six months reserved for relevant industries and enterprises. In January 2019, China submitted to the Committee on Market Access two notices of quantitative restrictions, 2016-2018 and 2018-2020, which included measures to prohibit and restrict the import of solid waste, including relative information of tariff line, legal basis and implementation date etc.

Listening to the statements by delegates in various WTO meetings, it is fair to say that the danger of solid waste has been noticed and acknowledged by most members. According to the Basel Convention and other internationally accepted principles, every country has the obligations to properly handle and dispose of its domestically produced solid wastes. China, as a developing member with the largest population, has suffered the pollution of solid wastes imported from other members for decades. We do hope the exporting members could actively shoulder their international responsibilities to handle and dispose of their own solid waste, rather than reaping commercial benefit at the cost of other members’ environment and human health.

The definition of solid waste varies from member to member and there is no unified international understanding and standard. The newly revised and implemented Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Waste has a clear definition on solid waste, which is basically consistence with that of the Basel Convention. At the same time, the law stipulates that raw material will not be classified as solid waste if it has undergone harmless treatment, meets the national mandatory quality standards and does not endanger public health or ecological safety. This means that raw material products meeting the aforementioned criteria will be treated as general goods, and the relevant rules apply to both domestic and international trade.

All members shall follow the basic principle of properly handling and disposing of their domestically produced solid wastes. Only based on this principle can members reach consensus and find solutions to the global challenge of solid waste pollution. In the meantime, adhering to this principle is conducive to promoting global green, low-carbon and circular development and promoting the building of a clean and better world.