Carriers Turn Down Waste Cargoes as China Tightens Import Rules
In late April, the Chinese government amended its law on the control of solid waste, including measures that clamp down even further on the importation of recycled materials from Western nations.
China was once the world's biggest destination for exports of industrial and consumer wastes, including recycled paper, cardboard, plastics and scrap metal. For years, the plentiful empty boxes bound for the return journey from the U.S. West Coast to China could be filled with waste and shipped across the Pacific at low cost. However, given the poor image, low value and potentially polluting nature of these cargoes, the Chinese government began to limit their importation beginning in 2017. The new standards were strict enough that for a period, a substantial portion of the world's scrap plastic and scrap paper lost a viable market and piled up near the source, forcing many local recycling programs to send their output to landfills. Some commodities diverted to alternative destinations with lower standards - notably Malaysia.
On April 29, China adopted a legal revision that requires its agencies to move gradually towards "zero" importation of solid wastes. It also raised the customs penalty for waste smuggling fivefold, setting a new upper limit of $700,000, and it makes ocean carriers jointly liable for infractions effective September 1. Previously, carriers were only responsible for the return the solid waste to the country of origin or the cost of its disposal if the importer could not be identified.
The new joint liability provision has led at least two carriers to reconsider their involvement in shipping wastes to China. In May, number-two carrier MSC said that it would stop accepting all solid waste cargoes bound for China effective June 1 in order to ensure compliance in advance of the rule's implementation. On June 12, Hapag-Lloyd followed suit, cautioning its customers that it will not accept any China-bound solid waste cargoes - including scrap metal - with arrival dates on or after September 1.
Other nations are also pushing back on recycled waste imports, particularly plastics. Malaysia banned the importation of plastic wate in early 2019, and in January 2020 it shipped about 150 illegal waste cargoes back to the country of origin. "Our position is very firm. We just want to send back [the waste] and we just want to give a message that Malaysia is not the dumping site of the world," environment minister Yeo Bee Yin told reporters at a January press conference.