With the holidays fast approaching, recycling bins across the nation will soon be overflowing with emptied eggnog cartons, tin cans once filled with quivering ribbed cranberry blobs and about one gazillion pounds of Black Friday circulars.
In many areas with curbside recycling, these seasonal leftovers are trucked to local processing plants where plastic, paper and other materials are sorted, compressed into hay bale-esque bundles and shipped off … to China.
It’s no secret that China, the top global importer of numerous recyclable materials, has accepted everyone else’s garbage with open arms for decades. The United States — along with a slew of other developed nations — sends China our recyclable trash and, in turn, China transforms foreign garbage into consumer products and packaging and sends it back our way.
Plastic waste is particularly lucrative. Last year alone, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3 million metric tons of recovered plastic from the U.S. — waste is the sixth-largest U.S. export to China — and other countries. Once in China, bales of plastic waste are trucked off to reprocessing facilities and turned into pellets for manufacturing. Just think: All that plastic food packaging tossed into the recycling bin around Thanksgiving could make its way back to you in the form of a shiny new smartphone the following Christmastime. As Bloomberg aptly puts it, “foreign garbage is really just China’s recycling coming home.”
This tidy reciprocal relationship, however, is coming to an end.
In July, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection told the World Trade Organization that it would no longer accept imports of 24 common types of once-permitted solid waste due to contamination concerns. The ban extends to various recyclables including several plastics such as PET and PVC, certain textiles and mixed waste paper. Easier-to-recycle metals are not included in the new restrictions.
Chinese officials believe that the waste it's receiving from the U.S. and elsewhere is simply not clean enough; harmful contaminants are mixing in with recyclable materials and polluting the land and water. "To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently need to adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluting," reads the country's WTO filing. And so, as part of both an overhaul of its recycling industry and an aggressive campaign to clean up its act on the environmental front, China is banning imports on precious foreign garbage — or yang laji — almost altogether.
“Clearly they are fed up with us dumping our junk on them,” noted trade economist Jock O’Connell tells McClatchy.
Enough homegrown waste to go around?
As a result of the ban, Chinese manufacturers will be forced to turn to its own waste market for certain raw materials.
As British daily the Independent points out, the domestic market for quality recyclables was once meager but has become more robust in recent years with the emergence of a Chinese middle-class with consumption habits similar to Westerners. (Translation: The Chinese are buying more and throwing away more.) Why import foreign waste when there’s now more than enough to go around — and recycle — at home?
But is there enough recyclable waste to go around? Some are concerned that China, global manufacturing powerhouse that it is, still doesn’t have enough high-quality scrap to keep up with such incredibly high demand. And if this is indeed the case, Chinese manufacturers could begin relying heavily on domestically sourced virgin materials once the waste import restrictions — dubbed “China National Sword” — are fully implemented at the beginning of next year. This ultimately defeats the whole environmental protection aim of the foreign garbage ban as virgin materials, in addition to being more expensive than recyclables, require mining and other polluting activities.
This all said, it’s understandable why China is wary of contaminant-ridden trash being shipped in from overseas when promised the crème de la crème of recyclable materials. It's also justifiable that they'd demand the U.S. and other waste-exporting nations clean up their acts. But at the same time, this seems to be a case of a major economic force shooting itself in the foot — and rather severely.
Recycling-happy Western states to be impacted hardest
While a shift toward the use of virgin materials in Chinese manufacturing is a key concern arising from the ban, closer to home the $5 billion recycling industry has also found itself facing a rather formidable pickle: Once recyclable waste is collected, sorted and bundled where will it go if not sold to Chinese buyers? Currently, about one-third of American scrap is exported, primarily to China.
The most obvious — and troubling — answer is local landfills. Our recyclable waste — so dutifully separated and put out to the curb — will continue to be collected, at least for now, in most places. However, some municipalities have already halted the curbside pick-up of the materials now banned by China — specifically plastics and mixed paper — because there is simply nowhere downstream to send them. While residents of places like San Juan Island, Washington, can still recycle items like aluminum and tin cans, everything else that they've been trained to recycle forever now must go out with the regular trash. Just like that the market has vanished.
Calling the Chinese kibosh on imported waste a “major disruption,” Peter Spendelow, natural resource specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, tells Oregon Public Broadcasting: “We’ve seen markets go up and down before, but this is big. When the major buyer cuts out with almost no notice — it’s going to be a struggle for a while. There’s just no way around it.”
“The public can’t help much for finding markets for these materials,” Spendelow adds. “But this is a good time to really think about what you’re putting in your bin and make sure you’re not putting in things that don’t belong there.”
Vinod Singh, outreach manager at Far West Recycling in Portland, echoes similar concerns, particularly with the holidays — high season of extra-thick catalogs, junk mailers, cardboard boxes and extraneous paper packaging — around the corner. “China is by far the biggest consumer of mixed paper. They’re the global consumer," he says.
And as McClatchy explains, Oregon, Washington and California are likely to bear the brunt of the ban given that these three progressive-leaning states are considered old pros at recycling and boast enviably high recovery rates for recyclables. Plus, shipping recycled waste from the western U.S. to China takes less time than shipping it from the East Coast. In September, two months after the ban was announced, shipments of scrap paper departing from West Coast ports had reportedly fallen 17 percent compared to the same month the previous year.
“As the Chinese work to implement their new regulations, this is likely to be a period of transition and, over time, Washington residents may see changes in what is allowed to go into recycling bins, or other changes in their local recycling programs, reads a statement from the Washington Department of Ecology warning of “significant impacts” on the Evergreen State’s commercial and residential recycling programs. “In the short term, more potentially recyclable materials are likely to go to the landfill because no market is available for them.”
Per the Seattle Times, in 2016 alone Washington sent 790,000 metric tons of scrap to China via the ports of Seattle and Tacoma — that's roughly 238 pounds of recyclable waste per the Washingtonian.
Clear across the country in North Carolina, some local sorting facilities and waste management organizations are also grappling with the early effects of the upcoming ban, particularly when it comes to difficult-to-recycle rigid plastics. Facing Chinese buyers that are now nonexistent and a dearth of domestic interest, the Orange County Waste Management Administration is still dedicated to collecting rigid plastics. However, the administration is currently "holding on to it and storing it in tractor trailers," recycling supervisor Allison Lohrenz tells the Daily Tar Heel.
A boon for some American industries?
The detrimental impacts of the Chinese foreign garbage ban is causing a whole mess of recycling industry professionals to lose sleep due to the very real potential for catastrophic job losses and sky-hight mountains of recyclable waste accumulating in domestic landfills. Others, however, see a silver lining.
The effects of the ban could potentially prompt U.S. consumers to be even more mindful about what they consume and don't consume, toss and don’t toss, which, in turn, could lower contamination rates and perhaps prompt the Chinese government to loosen the restrictions or reconsider them altogether.
“Long term this could be a good thing,“ Paula Birchler of Washington-based recycler Lautenbach Industries tells the San Juan Journal. “It could help us find out how to use less.”
And keeping more recyclable waste — like mixed paper, for instance — closer to home could also prove beneficial to domestic manufacturers who rely heavily on virgin materials to make cardboard and paper packaging products because the recycled stuff is predominately shipped off overseas.
Brian Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management Inc., America’s largest waste hauler and recycler, tells McClatchy that revenues at the company have already taken a hit and that many local operations have been forced to scramble in search of alternative markets well before the ban officially kicks in (if, in fact, it’s not all just bluster geared to make waste-exporting countries literally clean up their act). Of the 10 million tons of recyclable waste collected by WM annually, 30 percent of it is sold and shipped off to Chinese buyers. That’s a significant chunk.
Bell goes on to explain that paper mills are one type of business that could benefit from a rare abundance of domestically generated waste paper that can be transformed into pulp. “Some of these mills lost a lot of business to China,” explains Bell. “Some of them will now regain market share and get some of that back.”
“This is a good wake-up call,” adds Mark Murray, executive director of the nonprofit Californians Against Waste. “We should have been investing in utilizing this material domestically from the get-go.”
The potential boons associated with unsorted scrap paper aside, news that recyclable waste may actually be landfill-bound due to Chinese restrictions is no doubt discouraging. But if anything, the ban — whether it takes full effect come January or not — should serve as motivation to be even more vigilant about proper recycling (and seriously easing up on our use of throwaway plastic items). Let's show China we know how to use less and recycle right. We've got this.