Volume 18, Issue 6
On January 1st, the Chinese government instituted a ban on imported recycled plastic and paper materials, throwing the global recycling market into turmoil.Since the 1990’s, China has been the number one consumer of raw recycled materials, receiving a full half of the world’s waste plastic, metal and paper as cheap fodder for its rapid urban-industrial expansion. In 2016, China purchased 7.3 million tons of “solid waste” worth about $18 billion, leaving a gaping hole in global demand after the ban that experts fear will not easily be filled.
The ban prohibits the import of 24 different types of commonly recycled waste products, including low-grade polyethylene terephthalate found in plastic bottles and unsorted paper. It also requires that all non-banned imported recyclables contain no more than 0.5% contamination, a threshold stricter than any European or American standard on recyclables.
“Large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” Beijing wrote to the World Trade Organization explaining the logic behind the new ban. “This polluted China’s environment seriously.”
While Chinese officials were initially willing to ignore the environmental costs of importing contaminated scrap materials, such as soil and water pollution, the country’s explosive economic growth affords it the option of sourcing newer, cleaner plastics for its domestic needs over recycled ones.
“What’s happened is that the final link in the supply chain has turned around and said: ‘No, we’re not going to take this poor quality stuff anymore. Keep it for yourself,’” said Simon Ellin, chief executive of the British Recycling Association. “The rest of the world is thinking, ‘What can we do?’ It’s hard times.”
This decision is having profound impacts on the capacity of Western nations to handle their recycling, most of whom sent their waste to China and thus do not have the infrastructure to process recyclables themselves.
Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, are resorting to either incinerating or burying their plastics in landfills as a short-term solution to the crisis, though both options are environmentally damaging. Other countries, such as the United States, are attempting to find markets in countries like Myanmar, India, and Vietnam for their recycling, though switching supply chains so abruptly is a challenge.
“There may be alternative markets but they’re not ready today,” said Emmanuel Katrakis of the Brussels based European Recycling Industries Confederation. In the meantime, the United States, which annually sends over 1.42 million tons of scrap plastic and 13.2 million tons of scrap paper to China, will be forced to either spend taxpayer money on upgrading recycling processing facilities domestically or, like the UK, divert the excess to landfills according to Adam Minter, author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.” “Without China, there will be less recycling in the United States, and it will cost more,” the author said.
The United States initially relied upon China to recycle its plastic waste due to market incentives; it was simply cheaper to send recyclables overseas than it was to expand recycling capacities at home. With the shifting of incentives caused by China’s tightening regulations over recent years culminating in the most recent ban, it is costing the U.S. $2,100 per shipping container to return recyclables by ship from Chinese ports back to California.
“The public doesn’t realize this, but recycling is made possible by technology and markets – they think its just a matter of technology,” an expert on China’s waste management reported to Quartz. “And we don’t have strong enough markets in the U.S.”
While this market change will almost certainly harm the U.S.’s environment in the short term as recycling friendly states like Oregon and Washington divert their recycling to landfills, in the long term it could be beneficial as American states become incentivized to build their own recycling facilities.
- De Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko. “Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 January 2018. Web. 16 January 2018.
- Guilford, Gwynn. “China doesn’t want your trash anymore – and that could spell big trouble for American cities.” Quartz. Quartz Media LLC, 8 May 2013. Web. 27 January 2018.
- Guilford, Gwynn. “US states banned from exporting their trash to China are drowning in plastic.” Quartz. Quartz Media LLC, 21 August 2013. Web. 27 January 2018.
- Ives, Mike. “China Limits Waste. ‘Cardboard Grannies’ and Texas Recyclers Scramble.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 November 2017. Web. 16 January 2018.
- Kaskey, Jack and Ann Koh. “China’s Blow to Recycling Boosts U.S.’s $185 Billion Plastic Bet.” Bloomberg. Climate Changed, 6 December 2017. Web. 16 January 2018.
- Staub, Colin. “Exporter response to China: ‘We are changing our whole strategy.'” Plastics Recycling Update. A Resource Recycling, Inc. Publication, 4 January 2018. Web. 16 January 2018.