Explanations of the political gridlock behind international circular economy: Waste Ban narratives in the China-EU cooperation.
China and the European Union (EU) signed the first international circular economy (CE) agreement shortly after China issued the ‘Waste Ban’ (WB) on the import of 24 categories of solid waste. While the WB gained global attention, limited research addresses its political implications for international CE. Based on 72 expert interviews, 52 documents and participant observation, we study political WB narratives and corresponding perceptions of ‘Chinese’ and ‘European’ agency in the China-EU case. Our results show a political gridlock in China-EU CE coordination: the main narratives on the WB diverge on the very roles and rules of CE cooperation, scales of implementation, and the assessment criteria for environmentally and socially sustainable CE(s). To enable fruitful CE cooperation, we suggest three critical points for reflection and negotiation: (1) overcome ‘student–teacher’ roles rooted in linear development that run counter to CE ideas; (2) reconsider the focus on international and national waste diversion, instead of local waste prevention, that propels global waste markets sustained by increasing waste volumes; and (3) evaluate both the benefits and impediments of (new) trade relations for a CE cooperation that contributes to environmental and social sustainability.