China has refused to back down on its effective ban on waste imports at a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), after being accused of failing to allow enough time for exporters to adapt to the new regime.
Complaints were raised by the EU, US, Australia, Canada and Japan about China allowing only a 14-week transition period to the new system, which came into force on 1 March.
A WTO report said China had justified the effective ban as having “the objective of…protection of the ecosystem and the environment, the protection of human health and safety, and the protection of animal and plant life or health”.
Exporters protested that they could not adapt within 14 weeks, and that the measure would cause environmental damage if recycling alternatives could not be found and the waste ended up either in landfills or incinerators.
They also questioned whether China applied the same standards to domestic operators as foreign ones, as it should under WTO rules, and urged it to look for ways to meet its environmental goals without restricting trade so severely.
The country has imposed contamination standards on imports for recycling which are so tight that they are felt to amount to an effective ban.
UK industry figures this month warned that the resulting poor market were costing businesses thousands of pounds each week, with closures expected this year as some material prices plummet to zero.
Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said he was aware of companies having difficulty in paper as well as plastic, and that the economics no longer stacked up, while John Glover, managing director at Bywaters, said “the industry is walking on a bed of nails”.
Meanwhile, the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has warned that China’s planned 25% import tariff on aluminium scrap would hinder $1bn-worth of exports.
An ISRI statement said: “In 2017, the US exported more than $1.1bn-worth of aluminium scrap to China, which has been in a positive trade balance for more than a decade.
“The Chinese Government’s announcement will impact this significant US scrap export, spurring concern that exports of additional scrap commodities could be affected in future announcements.”
ISRI said a 25% tariff would impose $300m of additional costs “on a trade relationship that represents nearly 25% of the entire world’s trade in aluminium scrap”.
The EU was the second largest exporter of aluminium scrap to China in 2017, worth $360.51m, according to the ISRI.
Other significant US exports went to South Korea, India, Hong Kong and Malaysia.