China is no longer world's dumping ground, but cleaning up its own backyard is proving to be a challenge

China has a plan designed to clean up the world's biggest pile of waste, one that's been building across the country for decades

China has banned 24 kinds of waste from abroad in effort to tackle growing environmental disaster

A worker unloads a truckload of used plastic at a recycling plant in Lu Qian, China. Plants like these are being set up all over rural China as the government tries to clean up waste. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

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The farms outside Shanghai are a healthy green. Traditional crops like broccoli and cabbage are growing quickly in the spring sun.

But in the nearby village of Lu Qiao, they're harvesting something new and not nearly as natural: plastic.

Great sheets of it once used for wrapping commercial products arrive on the back of an overflowing truck. Huge compressed blocks of old shopping bags fill every corner of the local recycling centre. Workers sort it all so it can be turned into something else.

This is one of a growing number of such plants, sprinkled throughout rural China. It's part of a nascent government plan designed to clean up the world's biggest accumulation of waste, one that's been building across the country for decades.

The fields here may seem fresh and pure, but it's not hard to find valleys, creeks and ponds full of trash.

To clean it up, China has two big challenges. The first is local: convincing people to abandon old habits.

"People are used to just throwing things away," says Huang Yingying, the recycling plant manager. "We're telling them to recycle, to stop with the trash.

"We find we have to offer money to people as a reward to bring us material. In China, we haven't reached the stage where people will do that just to help the environment."

Recycled plastic is turned into new clothes hangers in a workshop on the outskirts of Shanghai. The raw material has become an integral part of China's production chain but there is a shortage of the raw material as Beijing has imposed strict limits on the import of foreign waste. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

The second challenge is bigger — in fact, global in scale — and China's solution has had far-reaching implications as it launches a campaign against yang laji, or foreign garbage.

China was taking in about half the world's unwanted paper and plastic for recycling when it decided last summer it didn't want to be the global dump. On average, some 20,000 tons of that material was arriving here every single day — not to mention glass, scrap metal and other waste.

Ban on 24 kinds of solid waste

It was a cheap and easy solution for the developed world — including Canada — but a growing environmental nightmare for China.

So last July, Beijing issued a list of 24 kinds of solid waste that it would no longer accept from the beginning of 2018.

That includes textiles, mixed paper shipments and the low-grade polyethylene terephthalate used in plastic bottles, known as PET. It also imposed strict standards to avoid contaminated waste. China complained that too much of it came uncleaned and unsorted.

Tricycles carrying electronic waste are seen at the government-sponsored recycling park in the township of Guiyu, Guangdong Province, China Jan. 12, 2018. (Aly Song/Reuters)

In a letter to the World Trade Organization, Beijing said it needed to protect the country's environment and people's health from "highly polluted" material.

"We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials," China's WTO filing said. "This polluted China's environment seriously."

Canada, the U.S. and three other countries raised questions or complaints with the trade body.

Still, the impact on China can't be denied.

Districts like Guiyu became notorious for electronic waste, for instance. Thousands of small, family run workshops recycled computers, taking them apart right on the dusty streets. There was no real system to dispose of the waste.

Greenpeace China

It was a well-meaning way to deal with global e-garbage. But out of control, it turned toxic — tainting water and soil with heavy metals. In local children, medical researchers found widespread lead poisoning.

Guiyu has been cleaning up slowly, with recycling activities moved to a designated industrial zone. But other areas have not seen the same effort. And there still isn't an effective national waste management system, says Greenpeace China.

"China needs to speed up their actions to set up the system. Rapidly," says Greenpeace's Lau Hua. "But so far, there hasn't been a very big change."

Villagers wash clothes in the garbage-filled Shenling River, in Yuexi county, Anhui province, February 14, 2015. (William Hong/Reuters)

Greenpeace says China's plan to limit foreign waste is a chance to set up a cleaner, more regulated system.

In the meantime, though, the bans on imported trash are causing problems here too. Ironically, there's a shortage of waste.

Low-cost hangers

The cheap materials gleaned from recycling have become an integral part of China's production chain.

Recycled plastic is turned into low-cost hangers, kids' toys and luxury car parts. Now, with less foreign recycling arriving, the raw material is scarcer.

In Beijing, the biggest bottle recycler uses vending machines to collect used plastic. It pays people about half a cent for every bottle they bring. But despite the city's population of 21.5 million, when the machines at a large suburban grocery store are opened, they're largely empty.

"People just don't bring all the bottles we need," says Feng Juan from Income Recycle Company. "We can recycle 50,000 tons [45,360 tonnes] a year, but can only collect about 30,000 [27,215 tonnes]."

Still, many expect that to change dramatically. As China's urban middle class grows, it will consume more and, likely, recycle more, though so far, public concern over pollution in China has been focused more on smog than trash.

Dwarfing imports

Recycling companies see a bright future.

"The potential is huge, and the market out there is enormous," says Tian Weiqiang, CEO of Tian Qiang Environmental Technology.

He says industry figures estimate Chinese consumers will be buying 700-million tons of goods annually by 2030, most of it recyclable.

If true — and if consumers here really do become avid recyclers — those amounts would dwarf anything the outside world has been sending.

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic