China has stepped up restrictions on the amount of foreign trash it will accept for processing, banning the import of various scrap metal and chemical waste products ahead of Earth Day on Sunday.
Chinese businesses are now banned from accepting waste hardware, scrapped ships, parts of scrapped cars and industrial waste plastics for processing, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said in an announcement this week.
The import of stainless steel and titanium scrap and wood will also be banned. This latest round of regulations take effect at the end of next year.
The ban on imported waste is "a symbolic measure for the creation of an ecological civilization in China," according to the fledgling ministry, formed amid a recent restructuring of government under President Xi Jinping.
China said it would stop importing foreign garbage, starting with residential waste plastics, unsorted waste paper and waste textiles last July, throwing a number of overseas urban "recycling" programs into disarray.
Ministry spokesman Liu Youbin told a news conference on Thursday that the moves are being implemented out of a need to improve environmental protection and public health.
"[The ministry] will work with relevant departments to ensure that all reform measures are effective and that foreign garbage is strictly prohibited," Liu was quoted as saying by the Economic Daily newspaper.
China, which imported some 47 million tons of waste in 2015, has already said it will stop accepting imports of 24 types of foreign waste by the end of the year.
Last year, the authorities canceled the import permits of nearly 1,000 companies, and shut down nearly 9,000 companies for ignoring the ban, but smuggling is still widespread, with customs officials seizing 110,000 tons of smuggled trash in the first quarter of this year, Reuters reported.
"The Chinese government has stepped up restrictions on foreign trash coming across the border, and the mainland authorities are sending out a clear message to other countries and foreign cities: China won't be accepting any more trash from overseas," Edwin Lau of Hong Kong environmental group The Green Earth told RFA.
Lau said a large number of developed economies, including Hong Kong, had gotten into the habit of sending their trash, including so-called "recyclables," to China in recent years.
He said these economies now need to focus on high-tech solutions for the "recycling" crisis, and start carrying out recycling properly.
Beijing environmentalist Song Xinzhou, founder of Green Beijing, said he hoped the order would result in improvements to soil and water quality in mainland China.
"In the past, China and a lot of other developing economies got into this industry for economic reasons," Song said. "But it is still causing huge harm to the local environment."
"This was a pretty low-end industry ... and we definitely need to stop doing it now that our economy is developing," he said.
Hong Kong confusion
In Hong Kong, local politicians appeared to be somewhat confused about the meaning of Earth Day, however.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan, who sits on the environment affairs committee of the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), said she had heard of it, but "couldn't remember" what it was.
Once reminded, Chan said the role played by environmental groups in showing the way for governments was a crucial one.
"Publicity and public education on environmental issues in Hong Kong isn't aggressive enough," Chan said. "The government is far too passive in a lot of cases."
Committee chair and pro-Beijing LegCo member Gary Chan said there hadn't been much publicity surrounding Earth Day in Hong Kong, where beaches and beauty spots are frequently swamped by plastic waste.
"Sometimes they say it's about switching off lights, and at others they say it's about plastic bottles," he said. "I think the government could do more, in a more detailed manner."
He said much of the domestic plastic waste collected by Hong Kong's recycling programs winds up in landfill sites anyway.
"This is the problem we are dealing with," Gary Chan said. "I think we really need a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, or for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, or government resources, not to purchase drinks in plastic bottles."
The Environment Bureau of Hong Kong said in a statement when contacted by RFA that it will be implementing a central recycling plan at district level, working with the city's 18 District Councils.
It has also launched the a Community Participation in Environmental Protection promotion program to encourage the public to actively participate in separating and cleaning items for recycling, it said.
Greenpeace campaigner Bonnie Tang said public awareness of the environmental impact of plastics has to improve before such schemes can be effective, however.
"This year, we have been talking about plastics pollution, so I hope everyone will organize various activities to address the issue, and cut plastics use together," Tang said.
"There isn't enough awareness of plastics, and yet we come into contact with them in every area of our daily lives, in our clothes, our food, our homes, and our travels," she said.
In Tibet, activists have taking matters in their own hands as plastic piles up.
“With modernization, today’s Tibetan people, including the nomads, became more consumerist, and with that many of their food stuff brought from urban inland are packaged in plastic. Things also come in bottles and there are consumer electronic devices, which if not disposed of properly, harm the environment and the health of people," a Tibetan activist told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"With more waste and littering in the nomadic areas, the Chinese government pays little attention to clean it up. Therefore, local Tibetan themselves took the initiative to clean up the environment and create educational awareness on the importance of preserving and protecting their environment," he told RFA.
Another Tibetan grassroots environmentalist said the increasing spread of Tibetan prayer flags can pose a problem.
"Tibet is a religious country and its people are very devout, and people hoist prayer flags around sacred lakes and on mountain tops as a religious ritual. But with the growing disposable income of the people, people are also putting up far more prayer flags on mountain tops," he told RFA.
"However, too many prayer flags on the hills are causing environmental problems. There are many cases of wild and domestic animals being trapped and dying, in a thicket of prayer flags," said the activist, who works to see that worn flags are disposed of in an environmentally sound way.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, by Yeung Mok for the Cantonese Service, and by Dorjee Damdul for the Tibetan Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.