China upended the world of recycling; what can you do?

The days of throwing recycling in your curbside bins and forgetting about it are over.

If you follow any environmental news at all, you have probably heard about China’s recent decision to essentially ban the imports of recycled plastic, paper and metal, while significantly toughening the standards for materials it does accept. Prior to the ban, China had been processing 45% of the world’s plastic; in the US, where a third of recycled materials are exported, nearly half goes to China. Unsurprisingly, this change sent cities in the US and around the world into a frenzy scrambling for alternatives: parts of Oregon, Idaho and Washington have stopped accepting certain recycling items; Philadelphia is sending at least half of its recycling straight to the incinerator.

Alright, let’s break everything down.

First of all, why should you care?

A US landfill site. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Flickr.

Because mountains of trash with no place to go are a big environmental problem. As current waste management facilities aren’t built to store all the recyclables without a shipping destination, these materials will either get incinerated or pile up in landfills (check out some jaw-dropping videos of landfills around the world here, including New York). Burning trash in vast volumes releases toxins and contaminants in the air, which increases the risks of disease like asthma and exacerbates inequality, as black and Latino communities tend to live near heavy industrial and dumping sites in the US. On the other hand, landfills don’t just look ugly and smell bad; they affect habitats, pollute ground and surface water, and emit massive amounts of methane, a form of green house gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Aside from environmental concerns, the recycling industry creates jobs – lots of them. An EPA study estimated that in 2007, the US recycling industry generated 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenue. Less $$ generated through exporting recyclables to China = less jobs. (Notably, the economic effects of China’s policy are felt in the mainland too – just think about all the manufacturers in China that used to rely on the import of these raw materials. )

Why did China ban waste import, and why now?

To understand China’s decision to tighten its recycling import standards, despite the policy’s negative impact on the country’s manufacturers, it’s helpful to trace the history of China’s role in importing the world’s waste. 

A truck packed full with recycled plastic seen in Shanghai. Credit: Wiki Commons.

China began importing waste materials in the 1980s, as a way to grow its manufacturing industry. Materials such as metal, paper and plastic are cheaper to recycle than to make from scratch, especially when commodity prices are high. China’s cheap labor and willingness to import waste and the world’s appetite for cheaply manufactured goods were a match made in heaven. For years, China took in the West’s materials at competitive prices and lenient purity standards, and with policies like “single stream recycling” making the practice easier than ever, this relationship ballooned. According to the Economist, Chinese imports of waste grew from 4.5 million to 45 million metric tons between 1995 and 2016.

However, with single-stream came greater contamination – greasy pizza boxes, diapers, hazardous materials, all shipped to China in bulk mixed in with the recyclables, making much of the materials unusable. In addition, there were issues of illegal dumping and low-quality waste imports. In 1997,an American business man was convicted of smuggling over 200 metric tons of unsorted trash labeled as paper. The year prior, factories in Xinjiang inadvertently imported more than 100 metric tons of radioactive metal from Kazakhstan.

To mitigate the environmental and public health impacts of these imports and their associated industries, China has gradually tightened its policies since the 2000s, such as requiring all importers to register with the government and increasing inspections for illegal wastes. Meanwhile, Beijing has made clear that it wants to increase domestic recycling and boost its ability to source recycled materials locally. The 2017 decision to ban most used plastic and paper while ramping up contamination standards is just China’s latest policy toward a direction it was already heading for years.

So…what can you and I do?

1. For starters, don’t stop recycling, unless your city tells you to.

While China’s policy has consequences for recycling all over the country, these effects vary by region. Facilities in the West Coast, which ship an overwhelming majority of their materials to China (given its proximity) are affected more heavily. In regions where sending materials to landfill is more expensive than recycling, finding a market for recyclable materials is still attractive to operators. To learn how China’s policy has affected each state, check out Waste Dive’s amazing website, which is updated regularly. And always always follow the recycling rule in your municipality.

A BigBelly Solar Trash/Recycling system near my job. It notifies the garbage collectors when they are full using energy collected from solar panels.

(Wait but…am I still partially contributing to trash that has nowhere to go?

Well yes. But the alternative of putting recyclables in the trash bin isn’t better, as it again either gets incarcerated or sent to landfill. Know that the tiny silver lining in this situation is that China’s policy may spur new opportunities here in the US – such as increased investment in domestic recycling infrastructure.)

2. Reduce, reuse, and recycle better.

China’s new policy includes more stringent contamination standards (0.5%, compared to the industry standards of 1%-5%), which many US recyclers find impossible to meet. Well, challenge accepted! Cambridge, for instance, recently launched a “Recycle Right” campaign. A good rule of thumb to remember is “when in doubt, leave it out.” (And seriously, bowling balls and dead animals do NOT belong in the recycling bin, people.)

3. Buy from corporations that make products with recycled materials.

Now that the price of recycled materials has fell through the floor, domestic manufactures may have an incentive to utilize recycled materials. Pepsi, Nestle and many other manufacturers have already announced plans to do so.

4. Support and protect our recycling infrastructure.

Let your municipality know that you care about recycling and that you want the program to continue (and more importantly, that you are willing to pay for it!) Let’s champion programs like EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management, which are under funding cut threats by the current administration. And let’s follow the lead of countries like Japan to ramp up our domestic recycling capabilities.

There is no doubt that China’s new policy means a sea change for recyclers and governments around the world, whose disruptive effects will ripple for years to come. Yet many experts have expressed optimism that the recycling industry is already recalibrating, as recyclers look for new markets and improve the quality of recycling. Let’s all use this opportunity to reckon with our massive trash problem, and let’s do our part to get to a world of better recycling. Fast.

Note: I learned so much about this issue from the terrific coverage from media around the world. I linked as many stories in my post as I could, while doing my best to track down and verify the facts and figures reported from original sources (studies, government documents, etc). Lastly, I must acknowledge Samantha Wittchen, whose insightful article inspired me to write this post.