Fears of widespread domestic pollution were amplified by “Plastic China,” a recent documentary film about a bleak town in the eastern province of Shandong where people earn their living by picking through scrap plastics and processing them in machines that belch black smoke. The film went viral in mainland China in January before disappearing from the internet there.
Pollution in the industry is “not only China’s problem,” said Wang Jiuliang, the film’s director.
“It’s the world’s common challenge,” he said.
China’s regulatory fight against imported garbage began in 2013, when a flurry of port inspections forced overseas recyclers to clean up their operations and invest in new waste-sorting technologies.
In July, China raised the stakes by telling the World Trade Organization that it would ban 24 kinds of imported waste, including some types of paper and plastics, by the end of the year. Chinese regulators also began restricting wastepaper imports.
“I was angry, but I knew I was just a small businesswoman,” Ms. Leung, 63, said of the wastepaper restrictions as she picked through cardboard, polystyrene and soda cans in a rat-infested alley in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on a recent morning.
Ms. Leung and thousands of other small-time scrap collectors sell the waste to traders at bare-bones collection points in this semiautonomous Chinese territory. The waste is then processed at recycling depots and exported to mainland China or elsewhere.
In the United States, the new rules mean more garbage could stay at home. While that could be good news for some recyclers, it could also mean more waste in the country’s landfills, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a lobbying group based in Washington.
Recyclers might also have to upgrade their facilities to handle the waste, leading to higher costs for American municipalities and taxpayers, said Adam Minter, a recycling expert and author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
“Without China, there will be less recycling in the United States, and it will cost more,” Mr. Minter said.
Workers at Hong Kong’s junkyards and scrap depots said that Beijing’s new and pending restrictions on waste imports were already affecting their bottom lines.
At a recycling depot on the city’s outskirts that looks out onto the Chinese mainland, the manager, Ryan Cheung, said local scrap collectors were selling him more plastics than usual, apparently because the new rules were already limiting their options. As a result, chest-high pallets of off-white packaging film were piling up under the depot’s corrugated-metal roof.
“I can’t buy anymore,” he said, standing near a pitching-mound-size heap of dismembered Barbie dolls as garbage trucks lumbered down a nearby road toward a landfill. “I have too much.”
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