Is China planning a complete ban on solid waste imports by end 2020?

China recycling
A person collecting waste in China

An official Chinese Government document has said that the country plans to ban solid waste imports by the end of 2020.

The Chinese Central Committee of the Communist Party has published a strategy on improving the country’s environment.


Within this document it said: “China has completely banned the entry of foreign garbage, cracked down on smuggling, drastically reduced the number and types of solid waste imports, and strived to achieve zero imports of solid waste by the end of 2020.”

In response, the Bureau of International Recycling said in a statement: “Currently, China defines ‘solid wastes’ in the National Standards of the People’s Republic of China Identification standards for solid wastes – General rules, while the quality thresholds for imported solid wastes as raw materials are set out in the National Standards of the People’s Republic of China Series GB 16487.

“As Governments create their circular economies by substituting primary raw materials with recycled raw materials, questions will inevitably arise about exactly when wastes cease to be wastes and become those recycled raw materials. Furthermore, countries that are not self-sufficient in recycled raw materials will need to import them for their manufacturing needs. BIR predicts further changes to Chinese standards and laws in order to affect its recycled raw material needs.”

The information coming out of China appears to be contradictory at present. Just last week, the General Administration of Customs announced that importers of recycled materials would need to reapply for their import licenses, but would be granted them for five years. Clearly, this is contrary to the idea that all solid waste imports will be banned from 2020.

But this isn’t the first time that hints have come out of China for a total ban.

Indeed, last year China revealed that it plans to gradually reduce the import of solid waste by the end of 2019 and replace them with domestic sources.

While in March, China revealed three new areas of regulation including an action plan on solid waste imports between 2018 and 2020. In this action plan, China would ban the import of foreign garbage.

Also in March last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the 13th National People’s Congress that China “will completely prohibit garbage from being brought into China“.

Generally, it seems the Chinese use the term ‘foreign garbage’ when talking about illegal materials, and ‘solid waste’ when mentioning legal material. However, there are times when these usages seem interchangeable.

The official definition of solid waste in National Standards of the People’s Republic of China Identification standards for solid wastes – General rules is:

Solid waste

Refers to solid, semi-solid and contained gaseous items and substances that are generated during production activities, household activities and other activities and have lost their original values, or haven’t lost their original values but are discarded or abandoned, as well as items and substances regulated as solid wastes according to laws and administrative regulations.

If China does wish to ban solid waste imports by the end of 2020, this definition would appear to include the recovered paper and metals that are currently allowed.

For the time being though, the contradictory messages coming out of China, are making it difficult to get a clear picture of the Chinese Government’s intentions. What does appear clear though, is that it is continually tightening the screw on imports of recycled materials.

China banned the import of most recycled plastics from the beginning of this year, but also announced that import of post-manufacturing plastics will be banned at the end of 2018.

Certain metals will then be banned for import at the end of 2019.

Will everything else be banned at the end of 2020? It isn’t clear yet if it will, but it could happen.


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