Three years ago, China announced that it was done importing “foreign garbage.” Henceforth, countries like the United States and Japan, major exporters of old boxes, newspapers, and plastic bottles, would need to find somewhere else to ship their junk. The decision pummeled recycling programs and companies around the world. Now the government says it will complete the work and nearly eliminate such imports by the end of the year.

Except maybe it won't.

Even as regulators are vowing to ban foreign garbage, they’re issuing permits to import millions of tons of it. Steelmakers are pressuring the government to allow more, and officials are vetting a plan to permit certain “solid waste” imports to be reclassified as valuable raw materials. The politics of the policy change are complicated. But the economics are not: China’s manufacturers depend on imported raw materials to function. In trying to force this change, they’re not only improving their bottom lines, but potentially doing the world an enormous favor.