Maybe it’s Time to Take Time: China’s Ban on Recyclables

By: Matthew Quraishi-Landes

Starting this year, China will stop accepting recyclable waste (metals, plastics, rubber, paper, cardboard, and textiles) from the United States. China notified the World Trade Organization last summer that it will no longer accept foreign recycled waste, citing “protection of human health or safety” and “protection of the environment.”  This ban on recycled waste poses a serious challenge to a two-decade-long trade plan. In 2016 alone, China, imported $5 million worth of recyclable waste from the United States, amounting to half of the United States’ total recyclable waste.

In the past, the trade arrangement between China and the United States had no problems. The process was simple. China delivered containers of manufactured products to the United States, and rather than sending back empty containers, these containers were filled with recyclable waste and sent back to China. However, recently, the arrangement has reached a point of contention.  China claims the level of trash and food residue within the containers is too high. China is then left with less recyclable waste and higher costs to sort and dispose of what should be the United States’ garbage. Chinese officials, therefore, concluded the time and money spent sorting and discarding contaminated waste just isn’t worth it anymore and issued its ban on waste.

With China’s decision forcing the U.S. into a corner, America needs to find a new destination for its recyclable waste, or, cut back on its waste entirely. Domestic recycling plants are starting to feel the effects of the ban as they reach capacity.  Steve Frank, the owner of two recycling plants in Oregon, described his inventory as “out of control.”  Frank said he hopes to export the recycled waste to countries like Indonesia, India, Vietnam, or Malaysia for a short-term solution but understands this can’t go on forever.

In the long-term, the United States has a couple of options, namely opening more domestic recycling plants to handle the excess demand or refining our recycling habits to persuade China to reopen its borders to our recyclable waste. The former idea seems improbable; if recycling was profitable domestically there would not have been such a reliance on China. The latter solution seems much more viable. Despite all of the chaos caused by the ban, there is an opportunity for the US to address its mistakes on recycling. Currently, most Americans think recycling is simply putting recyclable waste in the bin labeled “recycling”. However, single stream recycling does not allow for the proper separation of recyclables, a source of the contamination China contends.  In response, several organizations have started initiatives to get Americans to adopt better recycling practices – recognizing and dividing recyclables by class (the 1-7 number inside the recycling triangle) and cleaning them ahead of time to remove residues. One such organization, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), a coalition ranging from Amazon to General Electric, has taken it upon itself to address a major problem for recycling in the United States.  By unifying as a coalition, retailers are signaling a commitment to packaging labels that explicitly show where and how the packaging should be recycled to avoid confusion for consumers.

Now is the time for the United States to re-evaluate its recycling practices. We could continue to be the world’s problem child and not change our ways, but we have the potential to be at the forefront of how materials are created and disposed. If China will not take our recycled waste, maybe the time has come to change our vantage point on what has worked.  By shifting our recycling from a single stream to a dual system, materials are aggregated prior to arriving at the recycling plant, making our domestic plants more efficient and persuading China to reopen its borders to US recycling.

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