Edition 06: How a mountain of plastic is causing a major recycling headache, the rise of a robot farm, China’s fading soccer dreams and why we’re finally calling it a U.S.-China trade war. Read more…

Quote of the week (in honour of the World Cup)

“China’s soccer troubles are a case study in the limits of authoritarianism…the more you plan and the more you dictate, the less likely you are to rise beyond mediocrity.” – Stefan Szymanski, The Washington Post

One Big Story: China’s plastic import ban could cause a massive global waste problem

While it seems to be flying a bit under the radar, last week a study was published in Science Advances saying that, by 2030, 111 million tonnes (yes, you read that right) of plastic waste will have nowhere to go, due to the Chinese plastic import ban.

Back up:

The ban was implemented back in January: 24 kinds of solid waste would no longer be accepted as an import into China. Additionally – and potentially more importantly – China also imposed strict contamination standards, meaning that, even if you were shipping approved recyclables to China, if China determined that a shipper had a record of shipping contaminated (dirty, or containing non-recyclables mixed in) more than 0.5% of the total shipment, shipments from that shipper would not be accepted.

Why is this such a big deal?

Because China was the largest market for recyclables in the world – by far. Recently, it was taking more than half of the world’s recyclables, which it would then turn into cheap materials to be used in its own manufacturing. So, shippers who had been scrimping on costs of sorting and cleaning waste shipments to China, including not enforcing strict compliance with homeowners and businesses, are now suddenly faced either with absorbing those costs at their sorting facilities or passing those costs directly to businesses or homeowners (including you, readers). This also means that municipal recycling programs that were sold to voters as cost-neutral or profit makers may suddenly turn into expensive cost burdens on municipal budgets.

Where is it all going now?

A lot of the time, the waste isn’t going anywhere. Across Canada, recyclables are being stockpiled as municipalities look for solutions. Some jurisdictions have started importing more to other Asian countries – and some have put the recyclables in a landfill, or burned them.  But, even where municipalities have found other buyers in Asia these buyers will not pay as much as did China, especially if they know the product being offered is inferior and the municipalities are desperate to find any buyer.

Bottom line:

As the study indicates, unless the countries that use a lot of recyclables (primarily North America and Europe) either cut back or rapidly increase domestic processing capabilities, we are going to have mountains of plastic with which to contend.

This week on the noise-o-meter…

Stories involving China and the West were unusually low this time around – many of the stories on the graph here only indirectly involve the West.

Stories from the West

• From RealAgriculture, a discussion of why China is not interested in the Canadian government’s progressive trade agenda.

• From CBC, a deep dive into how the China-U.S. trade war could draw in the world’s oil powers.

Issues that Matter

Trade and Investment

• The U.S.-China trade war (yes, we’re finally joining everyone else and calling it a trade war) is ramping up: During one of the latest stages of the trade war, more than “1000 Chinese stocks dropped ten per cent.”

• Why we’re now calling it a trade war: trade wars, beyond tariffs, also include restrictions on tariffs and movement of people. The U.S. is planning an announcement restricting investment in China, and visa restrictions for Chinese students were announced at the end of May.  The Chinese embassy in Washington also recently announced a travel warning for Chinese people travelling to the US, citing high levels of crime and violence.

• An editorial in the Edmonton Journal suggested that the rift between China and the U.S. is a great opportunity for Canada to get closer to the U.S.

• China Brief Editor’s note: In my opinion, this is extraordinarily short-sighted; damaging the relationship with our second-largest trading partner to get closer to the current mercurial American president will hurt us far more than it will help us. Further, consider how cozying up to Trump has worked out for us so far.

• China has been pressuring the E.U. to join them in an anti-U.S. trade alliance.

• In support of growing Chinese tourism, the Canadian government has added a popular digital payment – UnionPay – as a way for paying for Canadian visas. Given that many Chinese use these sorts of payments instead of credit cards at their primary payment option, this is a good reminder to Canadians thinking about getting a slice of the growing Chinese tourism market – as of February, 527 million people in China use mobile payment platforms.

• Also supporting growing Chinese tourism, Tourism Vancouver has partnered with tech giant Tencent to market Vancouver to Chinese visitors.


• The H5N1 bird flu has been found on a Chinese chicken farm.

• The robot farm is here! China is launching a seven-year autonomous pilot agriculture program in one of its provinces. This highlights the need in western Canada to think beyond commodity exports to China and think about ag tech.

• The trade war between China and the US has agriculture experts predicting a Canadian shift back to producing more canola.

Clean Energy & Natural Resources

• A Chinese province is launching a 9-day clean energy project – the goal of which is for the entire province to be fuelled by 100 per cent clean energy for the whole nine days.

• Cuddly and solar-powered: a 250-acre solar farm shaped like a panda has been built in China.

• An interesting deep dive into how clean energy will reshape geopolitics – which China stands to gain the most from.

By the Numbers

Source: The Atlas, “Chinese state news sites grow faster on Facebook,” 2016, https://www.theatlas.com/charts/H1URVjxW.

While the data is a little old (from 2016) I thought this was interesting. And it got me thinking – I primarily use Canadian media sources, with only a little Chinese media (usually the South China Morning Post). Would you be interested in seeing more Chinese media? Let me know!

Interesting Tidbits

• China censors John Oliver after scathing 20 minute video (June 21) CNN

• Why China doesn’t dominate soccer (June 18) Washington Post

• Peking University installs facial recognition system for students and staff on campus gate (June 28) SCMP

That’s all for today! Questions, comments? Send them my way! – Sarah Pittman, policy analyst

The China Brief is a compilation of stories and links related to China and its relationship with Canada’s West. The opinions expressed in the links are those of the articles’ authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Canada West Foundation and our affiliates. [i] Media measurement is provided by a third-party, independent media monitoring service. To be included in the noise-o-meter, “China” must be in the title, and one of the four western provinces somewhere in the article. While not a perfect system, this gives us an idea of how much China and the West are being discussed together.