Did you know if you live in a developed country, most of your recycling is actually sent to other countries for processing? It didn’t use to be this way, but with the advent of a global economy and China’s extremely fast growth, exporting recyclables became much more profitable than recycling them domestically. But now China’s recycling ban has halted imports and left countries drowning in stockpiled recyclable material.
By 2016, China imported over half of all imported recyclable waste, but in 2017, China announced it would start enforcing stricter rules on its recycling imports, making it much harder and even unprofitable to export recycling there. So what does China’s recycling ban mean for all of us?
This ban took effect in 2018, and now many countries are struggling with what to do with all their recycling. Many municipalities have begun shutting down curbside recycling programs and sending truckloads of materials to landfill because they have no other profitable way to get rid of them.
Unfortunately, recycling is still a business, not a public good. This means recyclers will chose the most profitable option, even if that isn’t necessarily what’s in the public’s (or the environment’s) best interest. We’ll look at some possible solutions at the end of this post which can help confront the millions of tons of recyclable material we are used to sending elsewhere.
Recycling as we know it today (curbside programs and bottle return machines) was born in the late 1960s due to the environmental movement and increased awareness about the effects of the disposable lifestyle introduced in the 1950s. Although during the 1970s and 80s there were huge relative increases in recycling rates, today’s rates are still pretty low. The US and UK recycle about 34% and 39% of the waste they generate respectively. Only 9% of plastic is recycled today.
In the beginning, recycling was a domestic industry, but in the 1990s China and other countries (mostly in Asia) began buying up larger and larger amounts of recyclable waste. The recycled materials boosted China’s manufacturing industry and led to its quick rise to power on the global stage. China made recycling easily profitable, and many countries began sending more and more material overseas, driving recycling to become a $200 billion industry.
Before China decided to impose bans and stricter standards on the waste it imports, the nation bought the majority of global recyclable waste. The US exported 1/3 of all its recycling, and half of that went to China. The UK exported 2/3 of its plastic waste directly to China. The EU sent 60% of plastic waste and 13% of paper waste to China for recycling.
In total, China was responsible for importing well over half of all global plastic waste and half of all global paper exports. But in 2017, China began rolling back its recycling purchases.
China’s Recycling Ban
What Is The Ban?
China’s recycling ban on importing foreign waste is actually two different policies. The first began in 2013 to enforce regulations passed in 2006 and 2010. This policy, called “Green Fence”, increases standards on imported waste by lowering the acceptable contamination percentage. In July 2017, China dropped the percentage to just 0.3% but increased it back up to 0.5% by October of that year. The University of Georgia has estimated that these policies could displace 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030.
China announced the second policy, called “National Sword”, in 2017 which bans 24 different types of solid waste materials. Some of these materials are PET drink bottles, plastic containers, and mixed paper. Mixed paper includes paper products like magazines and catalogs. This policy also cracked down on permit fraud and the smuggling in of recycling waste to China.
China has also imposed higher quality control standards for all other wastes it hasn’t yet banned, but these policies are just the beginning. The country began a total phase-out of waste imports that started last year.
Why Ban Recycling Imports?
Now why would China suddenly refuse foreign waste (something that created a huge industry and led to the nation’s economic boom in the past decades)? They have cited both environmental and public health concerns.
China has no fully-developed waste management system so it has struggled to handle all the imported waste. The recycling facilities are not well-monitored and pay very low wages to workers workers. These workers must manually sort through all the material and remove non-recyclable pieces. They are exposed to toxic chemicals like mercury and lead. China has shut down many facilities because they failed inspections.
In addition to these issues, China has also reduced its need to import foreign material. Its quick rise as an economic powerhouse has caused an increase in domestic recycling, an increase in virgin material use, and an increase in domestic plastic and paper consumption.
This graphic from National Geographic shows the bottleneck effect China’s recycling ban has had on waste exports. From February 2017 to February 2018, there was a 557,000 metric ton drop in exports to China. Following the ban, over 50 countries have fully halted exports to China. This constriction has led to many problems in the countries that used to send their waste to China.
Other countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have begun importing more waste as a result of China’s pullout, but this is not a solution to the problem. These countries do not have the buying power, the infrastructure, or capacity to fully takeover for China.
Effects At Home
A New York Times report from May of last year has shown that hundreds of recycling programs in America are collapsing due to the inability to do anything with the waste. Because recycling is a business, facilities have stockpiled material in warehouses and parking lots while trying to find a buyer that would turn a profit only to fail and instead incinerate the material or send it to landfill. They have increased recycling fees and even shut down or stopped collecting in certain cities.
Incinerating recyclable plastics forces an increase in virgin plastics, but burning plastics is also very harmful to the environment. Dioxins get released into the atmosphere, which can cause cancer. Incineration also contributes to global warming, and waste to energy plants aren’t as green as they might appear. An article in the Atlantic says “[s]tudies have found that they release more harmful chemicals, such as mercury and lead, into the air per unit of energy than do coal plants“.
Sending more and more waste to landfill has also led to an increase in landfill fees. Recyclers have little other choice but to pay them since recycling is even more expensive or impossible. Developed countries that have grown used to shipping recycling overseas do not have proper domestic facilities to handle the material themselves.
Here are a few examples of how China’s ban has affected American cities:
- Broadway, VA – Suspended recycling program due to inability to cover a 63% cost increase.
- Blaine County, ID – Stopped mixed paper collected and sent 35 bales to landfill.
- Fort Edward, NY – Suspended recycling program and admitted to sending recycling to incinerators for months prior to shut down.
- Akron, OH – Suspended glass recycling program
If you’re in the US, you can check out how the ban has affected your state by searching through Waste Dive’s collection of recycling impacts in all 50 states. In my state of Massachusetts, there have been higher recycling fees, material pile-ups, and canceled contracts. Some places have ended single-stream recycling in favor of old school sorted recycling to reduce the risk of contamination.
Although there may be no magic solution to solving our global recycling crisis overnight, there are options for industry to create a more sustainable future and actions you can take today to help combat the issue.
Because many countries have relied on global recycling, they do not have proper facilities. By building and rebuilding domestic recycling facilities, we can start taking responsibility for our waste instead of pushing it somewhere else. Recycling budgets must increase so domestic facilities can keep operating.
According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, around 25% of material placed in recycling bins is contaminated. To improve the quality of our recycling waste, we may need to revert back to a sorted system instead of the single-stream system in many municipalities today. Single-stream recycling increases the quantity of recycled material because people don’t need to put in much effort so will recycle more things, but it greatly decreases the quality because these items are too dirty or not recyclable in the first place.
The public must get educated on what they can and cannot recycle to reduce contamination and quicken the sorting process. Check out my post called What Can I Recycle and Where? for a quick guide.
Robot sorting machines can go through material much faster than humans and could provide a better end product (reduced contamination).
Since 89% of exported plastics are single-use food packaging, companies should move toward less packaging, reusable packaging, and/or compostable packaging. A tax on plastic waste has also been proposed as a way to discourage waste. Pushing for heightened corporate social responsibility (CSR) will put an end to consumers being responsible for and dealing with the effects of the poor choices producers make.
Do you have any other ideas for how we can tackle our recycling problem in light of China’s recycling ban? Have you seen the effects of the ban in your area? Leave a comment below!