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China Doesn’t Want Our Trash Anymore, So We Need To Recycle Smarter

For years, China has wanted all our leftover plastic. Now that it doesn’t, the U.S. waste industry needs to adapt–quickly.

China Doesn’t Want Our Trash Anymore, So We Need To Recycle Smarter
[Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

Each day, thousands of shipping containers full of American recycling–plastic, metal, paper, old electronics, textiles–are loaded on cargo ships and sent to China for processing and reuse in Chinese factories. For shippers delivering Chinese consumer products to the U.S., it’s a way to fill space on the return trip. But China no longer wants so much of our trash.

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In a ban set to take full effect on January 1, China will no longer accept plastic from residential recycling programs, mixed paper, old clothing, and a long list of other materials. The problem, they say, is that the materials are often so badly sorted that garbage–and sometimes toxic waste–is mixed in with materials that have value. China’s own waste production is increasing, along with production of virgin materials, so there is also less demand for scrap materials than there has been in the past.

[Photo: Jon Moore/Unsplash]
Without the Chinese market, which imported $5.6 billion in scrap from the U.S. in 2016, some recyclers say that they’re already sending bales of recycling to landfill (the ban has been phasing in since September). In Oregon, for example, 12 different recyclers have gotten permission from the Department of Environmental Quality to trash recyclables when they have no other option; processors and brokers and governments are meeting to find alternatives. In California, the agency Rethink Waste may stop accepting certain plastics in response to the ban. The effects are different in every state–often worse on the West Coast, where it’s especially cheap to ship to China–and also vary between cities.

Others say that the ban is another reason for recycling facilities, and consumers, to do a better job of recycling. In San Francisco, in a 200,000-square-foot recycling plant on Pier 96, four optical sorters scan through old containers, lids, and other waste to quickly identify different kinds of plastic and paper. The facility invested $14 million to upgrade equipment in 2016. “For many reasons, including equipment upgrades, the baled materials from San Francisco’s recycling program are much cleaner, contain much less trash, than the bales from other cities,” says Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology, the company that runs the facility (and all San Francisco’s waste management). “Because San Francisco bales are cleaner, end-users and manufacturers rate San Francisco bales as higher quality. That’s why even in down economies San Francisco is always able to move its recycling.” The company now sells plastics to countries including Indonesia and Thailand instead.

It’s unclear whether China might still want some materials from the banned list if they are clean. “We still don’t have a lot of clarity,” says Adina Adler, senior director of international relations for the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, an industry trade group. For example, though residential plastic waste is banned, the group is trying to learn whether a version of that plastic that has been cleaned and turned into pellets–ready to go back into a factory to make something new–might be acceptable.

[Photo: Imthaz Ahamed/Unsplash]
“I think there’s still some trade opportunities as long as companies think about: Can they make it cleaner and higher quality, because our members do in fact process high-value commodities, they are valuable products, that are still in demand in China,” she says. “So to the extent that companies can figure out how to differentiate themselves in that way, then the opportunity for trade may still be there.”

Others are focusing on different markets. Waste Management, the largest waste company in the U.S., has spent the last few years developing domestic outlets for its plastic. “When China came out with their ban . . . for our company, it really had minimal to no impact, because most of our material is already going domestic,” says Brent Bell, the company’s VP of recycling. “We had a lot of good domestic outlets for that material, and we also realized that it looked like China and some other countries were cracking down on importing plastics as well.”

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The company works to create demand for recycled material from manufacturers. One customer and partner, KW Plastics, has helped shift the paint industry to paint cans made from recycled #5 plastic, the same material used in most yogurt containers, and Waste Management looks for similar new opportunities. “We can’t tell folks in certain parts of the U.S. to stop recycling because the demand’s dropped off,” Bell says. “That doesn’t work. So we need to make sure that the demand side of it is there.”

Mixed paper was a larger challenge for the company, because paper–from online delivery boxes, junk mail, and other sources–has a bigger volume in residential recycling bins than plastic, and much of it was going to China. The company now ships the paper to India and some customers in the U.S., where it’s turned into products like cereal boxes and shoe boxes. One of its American paper mill customers now plans to invest in new facilities to add capacity.

Consumers can also do a better job of sorting their own recycling–and simply throw out less, particularly plastic. “As a result of China’s ban and other factors, we have increased, and are continuing to increase, outreach and education to customers to highlight simple steps we can all take to stop consuming single-use plastics,” says Reed. As the value of recycled plastic goes up and down, it’s not always economical to process–and around 8 million tons of it end up in oceans every year.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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