How China’s Trade Policies Are Affecting U.S. Recycling

For over a decade, recyclables and scrap materials have been one of the United States’s largest exports to China. Plastic, paper and other materials from household recycling across the U.S. have long been shipped across the Pacific for China to turn back into raw materials. In the past few years, however, China has been attempting to regulate the materials they accept as part of a policy called Operation Green Fence. The imported materials have often been contaminated — sometimes by hazardous waste — which means they can be impossible to recycle, dangerous to work with, and detrimental to the environment. As a nation, China has also been producing enough of its own waste in recent years that it doesn’t need American recyclables to generate a supply of raw materials.

In 2017, in response to the contamination and their reduced need for imports, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection declared new standards for imported recyclables. For items such as paper and scrap plastics, the contamination rate must be lower than 0.5 percent. In other words, in a shipment of paper, less than 0.5 percent can be unrecyclable paper or another material all together. China has also banned 24 types of solid waste from import, citing “protection of human health or safety” and “protection of the environment.”

How They Affect Us

The new regulations, which went into partial effect January 1, 2018, and went into full effect as of March 1, 2018, are impacting the recycling industry across the globe. In the U.S., we have long relied on China to buy our recycled materials and ensure that recycling is a profitable business. With the absence of the Chinese market, household recyclables are piling up at transfer stations and landfills with no one to buy them and nowhere to go. At least 22 states have reported a noticeable or heavy impact so far, including the following:

What We Can Do

What does this mean for the future of recycling in our nation? As things stand, we have two possible responses: improve our recycling process so we can achieve the 0.5 contamination rate, or create new markets for recyclable materials.

The first step is to ensure that our recyclables are less contaminated. For waste companies, this may entail slowing the sorting process at recycling centers, hiring more workers, and building more facilities. Cities may need to enforce stricter residential recycling policies, and the industry as a whole would benefit from investing in technological advances for sorting machine capabilities.

Second, the U.S. may need to change the way we handle the waste we have been shipping overseas. Narrowing the types of materials we sell could help us develop domestic markets for recyclable materials. The process of turning consumer goods back into useful raw materials is hindered by the wide array of materials types — think of all the kinds of plastic you encounter on a daily basis. To make this process efficient enough to be profitable, it would help to have fewer materials in larger quantities. Manufacturers may also need to take responsibility for the materials they produce and sell, instead of passing the burden onto retailers, consumers and the government.

Ultimately, if we don’t have better systems in place to deal with our trash, we will inevitably be stuck with it. You can do your part by looking up if an item is recyclable before tossing it in the trash or recycling, and making sure your recyclables are empty, clean and dry. Even better — reduce how much trash and recycling you create in the first place. Lake County Recycles can help by giving you easy tips on how to avoid reducing each type of waste. Simply search our Recycling Guide or our browse our latest Tips, News & Events for ideas.