By doing so, China has saved millions of tonnes of resources and indirectly funded thousands of recycling programmes and companies globally, reported Bloomberg.
China's decision to ban the import of junk for recycling is likely to provide incentive for other countries, companies and programmes to invest in new, cleaner technology to take China's place and gain access to those recycled materials for themselves. Arch-rival Japan, long a major global recycling exporter, may be the first to seize the opportunity.
Like so many other countries, Japan has for decades relied on China as a major destination for its recycling. This solved an immediate problem, but was also a boon to Chinese manufacturers. After all, while environmental concerns have driven the expansion of recycling programmes throughout the developed world, what goes into the blue bin is also manufacturing feedstock.
In the US, for example, 40 per cent of the aluminum supply comes from recycled resources. Close to half of China's copper supply is recycling-based.
This is especially true for difficult-to-recycle items such as electronic waste. "Mining" an old mobile phone for gold or other rare metals is far cheaper than digging a mine, particularly if labour is inexpensive and environmental controls are limited.
China's output was extraordinary: At its peak, the country's leading e-waste processing zone produced 20 tonnes of gold from old electronics annually. That's roughly equal to 10 per cent of US mined gold production in 2016.
With long-term government support for research, some of Japan's biggest companies are moving to deploy technologies at home and abroad that will replace some of the low-cost and polluting recycling systems long used in China.
For example, Mitsubishi Materials is investing US$100 million in precious metals refining plants devoted to electronics and - looking to the future - lithium-ion car batteries. Initially, Mitsubishi will focus on Japan, but it's also planning to open a plant in the Netherlands, where it will be in a position to manage at least some of the European Union's electronic waste once bound for China.
Crucially, those plants won't only make money as service providers; Mitsubishi also sees them as a hedge against expected future scarcity.
Of course, research and investment on that scale isn't cheap or short-term. Mitsubishi, for one, doesn't expect to have its recently announced plants fully operational until 2021. But once it does, the raw materials derived from those plants will be freely traded worldwide.
Chinese manufacturers, now forced to import those materials, will face higher costs and lower competitiveness, while Mitsubishi and Japan enjoy broad economic and environmental benefits. Indeed, the outlook is so bright that organisers of the 2020 Olympics are arranging for gold, silver and bronze medals for the Games to be made from electronic waste generated by Japanese consumers.