China’s Ban on ‘Foreign Garbage:’ Rethinking Recycling as Toxic Matter Out of Control
In 2018 China began implementing a ban on imports of “foreign garbage,” impacting recycling programs around the world that rely on Chinese markets. However, Chinese waste politics engages with recycling not only as a polluting globalized industry, but also as a necessary element of urban environmental modernity. I probe this contradictory engagement with an ethnographic account of one entrepreneur’s struggles to bring recycling to a southwestern Chinese city, and by showing how his projects are indirectly undermined by the anti-foreign waste movement, exemplified by the film Plastic China (2016). While a common mantra of the recycling coalition is that “garbage is just a misplaced resource,” a different message is emerging from anti-foreign waste actors: that recycling is often just garbage displaced in space/time. Thus, in addition to “matter out of place,” Chinese waste politics demands an attention to toxic matter out of control—harmful matter cycling through biophysical processes that exceed human knowledge and defy infrastructures of containment.
Adam Liebman is a Mount Vernon Society of Fellows postdoctoral scholar and instructor of anthropology at George Washington University. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow with Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies and received his PhD in sociocultural anthropology at UC Davis. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled Turning Trash into Treasure: Shadow Economies and Toxic Ecologies in Postsocialist China.