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How China’s Recycling Bans Have Impacted The Fate of Curbside Recycling in the U.S.

By Katelan Cunningham · April 22, 2019

Until this year, at least half of the world's recycled materials were exported to China for processing because it was cheaper than processing them stateside. As of 2016, China was importing and processing 40M tons of scrap material from around the world. Then in 2017, they started rolling out policies to drastically restrict waste imports as a way to decrease the pollution in their country, improve their own domestic recycling, and increase manufacturing and production efforts beyond the waste industry. 

Before these restrictions, the U.S. was exporting one third of our recycled waste to China. You may have heard that these regulations have already resulted in a lot of recyclable waste piling up in cities around the U.S. With more restrictions coming at the end of this year, this is only the beginning.

Regulations have trickled in over the past several years, and now the U.S. is feeling the effects in a massive way. To recap, here are the milestone recycling regulations that China has rolled out since 2017:

February 2017 Announcement: China announces National Sword: a campaign to cut down on waste smuggling by tightening supervision at ports, rejecting certain materials process, and continuing to crack down on smuggling. Rollout was slated to start in September of 2017. Read more.

July 2017 Announcement: More details of National Sword are released, focusing on import quality, specifically contamination restrictions and a ban on 24 categories of waste imports including mixed paper and mixed plastics. Rollout was slated to start by the end of 2017. Read more.

U.S. Recovered Paper Exports, Top 5 Destinations (in Million Metric Tons)
U.S. Plastic Scrap Exports, Top 5 Destinations (in Million Metric Tons)

March 2018 Rollout: China increases contamination restrictions on permitted materials including scrap metals, wood, OCC, and more. Their contamination allowance was cut by more than half, from 1.5% to 0.5% (up from the 0.3% initially proposed in July). Read more.

Prompted by increasing contamination and waste smuggling, China rolls out the Blue Sky 2018 initiative. The China Scrap Plastics Association called it a “further development of Green Fence and National Sword.” The initiative was slated to run through December 2018. Read more.

April 2018 Announcement: China releases a list of 32 material waste imports that they will ban by the end of 2019. Material bans are slated to take affect in two phases — first, in December 2018, then in December 2019. Read more.

July 2018 Announcement: China proposes a total import ban on recovered fiber and other solid waste. Read more.

December 31, 2018 Rollout: Import ban rolls out for the first 16 materials, including post-industrial plastics (PE, PET, PS, PVC) and scrap metals. Compared to 2017, imports of scrap paper to China fall by 44.6%. Scrap plastic imports fell by 94.4% compared to the previous month. Read more.

December 31, 2019 Rollout: China's ban takes affect for final the 16 materials including some forms of stainless steel scrap and wood waste. Read more.

What's happening to our recyclables now?

With nowhere to ship all of this recycling waste, issues with the U.S. waste stream are now amplified. Namely, contamination. With the bulk of the country's curbside recycling going through single stream systems, mixed recyclables take a lot of time and effort to sort, if they're salvageable at all. 

MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities) are the companies that collect curbside recyclables for sorting, cleaning, and processing. Recycling has turned into an urgent predicament, one that these privately owned MRFs are left to figure out on their own. Since they can no longer ship most of the processed materials to China, they're running out of space, so they (like China) are also tightening the contamination restrictions. Stricter contamination restraints often means running machines slower for higher quality control, so less waste is getting processed each day. Not only that, MRFs are now sending more contaminated recyclables to landfills. Both of these options cost them money. 

In the U.S., larger companies like Waste Management are investing millions of dollars to upgrade their infrastructure to meet demand, but many programs can't afford to scale. They can barely afford to get rid of the excess waste. Some cities have resorted to burning recyclables (and capturing the energy when possible), burying them, or sending them to landfills. Some cities have had to shutter their recycling programs altogether because they're losing money to keep them running. This timeline by WasteDive is a great resource for a granular, state-by-state look at the impact of China's tightening regulations, and this timeline from Resource Recycling breaks down every step China's waste import evolution.

How can we improve recycling?

To start, companies can take more responsibility for the materials they're using and the resources they require from the planet. Using more recycled materials in packaging is a great first step. And when it's time for customers to recycle their packaging, they need the proper information to recycle it.

Consumers can follow the first rule of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," and start by being very mindful about purchases so that recycling is the last option after reduction and reuse. To combat contamination and save space, consumers can double check their city's recycling options, collapse boxes and large containers, and keep recyclables clean so they don't soil the whole bin. There are other, more systemic solutions that other countries have already pioneered, like the ice cream truck model for garbage in Taipei. (Hear all about it on this episode of 99% Invisible.) More dual stream recycling and dropoffs are also options to combat contamination.

At a time when there's a quickly shrinking market for exporting U.S. recyclables and little infrastructure to process them, it's more important than ever that every part of the supply chain is optimized for materials' reuse before they even get to the bin. 

Header photo via Ignat Kushanrev.

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