China's Environmental Campaign: How China's 'War on Pollution' is Transforming the International Trade in Waste
51 NYU Journal of International Law and Politics, Forthcoming
78 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2019 Last revised: 31 Oct 2019
Date Written: January 25, 2019
China, as a factory platform for the world, became a center of the global waste trade in the 1990s, importing and processing hundreds of millions tons of waste materials every year. The recycling industry has contributed enormously to China’s industrial growth, but has simultaneously generated various regulatory problems, such as environmental violations and illegal waste traffic. In mid-2017, the Chinese government announced a ban on the import of foreign waste with the objective of protecting the natural environment and human health. Scientists predict that this ban will displace over 100 million tons of plastic waste by 2030, along with other types of waste. One year into the enforcement of the foreign waste ban, the global waste trade regime has undergone significant changes. On the one hand, the ripple effect of the Chinese ban may encourage more investment in waste reduction and recycling and a speeding up of the adoption of stricter environmental standards in international law and the domestic law of other countries. On the other hand, however, it could trigger a race to the bottom in environmental standards among developing countries as they are trying to take in waste shipments that are rejected by China. This article explores the regulatory context and power dynamics inside the global recycling value chain that has contributed to shaping the two ongoing trends. By presenting a case study of the impact of China’s domestic environmental reform on the international waste trade, this article engages ongoing discussions about the emergence of Chinese leadership in global governance, the challenges of sustainable development, and the impact of globalization on the informal economy.
Keywords: Environmental Law; International Trade; Recycling; China
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