China highlights legal route for importing recyclate in WTO submission

Chinese mixed paper Japan
Chinese customs officials inspect illegal mixed paper from Japan

A submission by China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has noted that there remains a legal method for importing recyclate into the country.

In response to a complaint from the United States submitted in July about China’s ban on the import of recycled raw materials that is due to begin at the end of this year, China noted that its recent Law on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Waste contains a clause that allows for solid waste to be considered a raw material under certain circumstances (as was highlighted by this website when the law was published – click on the link above).


When answering the US point from July that China’s new import procedures appeared to have “different requirements for foreign and domestic commodities” and that it should “halt implementation of its ban and revise the relevant measures in a manner consistent with existing international standards for trade in scrap materials”, China answered:

“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 consistent 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.”

View the Chinese response here

Paul Sanderson, REB Market Intelligence
Paul Sanderson, REB Market Intelligence

Paul’s view

As I revealed when I originally wrote about the passing of the Chinese Law on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Waste, it contained a clause that appeared to offer the possibility that imports of recyclate would still be allowed.

The problem remains that China has not clarified what this means in practice.

For example, what does it mean by “harmless treatment” and does not “endanger public health or ecological treatment”?

If you take the example of OCC, if a load is baled, meets the still in force GB 16487.4 standard for waste paper imports including the 0.5% contamination limit, and contains no biological material or anything else that damages China’s ecology, is this still permitted? It would seem so.

But the reality is, which exporter is going to try it out and see if Chinese pre-inspection authorities and Customs authorities permit the material to enter? (If you are an exporter and want to test this, please let me know!).

Would you get a shipping line to take the risk of transporting the material knowing they could face the consequences of a fine and having to return the paper? I doubt you would.

As I reported in October, Chinese Customs highlighted that it was returning 353 tonnes of illegal mixed paper to Japan that for many observers in years gone by would have been considered a high quality raw material (pictured at the top of this page).

China has reclassified recycled industrial metals, and is believed to be in the process of developing standards for recycled plastics.

The future for paper and cardboard remains unclear, but unless an exporter and a shipping line are prepared to try a test load, let’s be honest, this remains a total ban on imports from 1 January 2021 and that is the case for plastics too that were banned in 2018.

For the Chinese to say otherwise in this submission to the WTO is a bit disingenuous.

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