China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

Recycling changed dramatically in 2018, when China went from accepting 45% of the world’s plastic waste to almost none. As a result, by 2030, up to 111 million metric tons of plastic could be displaced.[1]

All that extra plastic, as well as the paper and other materials China is refusing, has significant and far-reaching effects. It impacts waste management systems and the economics of recycling, and it may also force people to re-evaluate their behavior.

Why China’s Decision Changes Everything

To understand why China’s policy had such an impact, it helps to consider how recycling used to work.

Before 2018, China accepted materials even if they were heavily contaminated. From a recycling perspective, this means those materials included:

  • Items that weren’t recyclable, especially plastic bags and food wraps
  • Food and liquid waste, either directly or from containers that haven’t been properly cleaned
  • Hazardous waste such as diapers, needles, and pesticides

Once China received shipments, low-paid workers sorted and cleaned the contaminated materials. Since about 25% of recycling is contaminated, this took a lot of time and labor[2], and it increased China’s waste by 10-13%.[3]

The sheer amount of contamination overwhelmed Chinese facilities. It also left them with the problem of disposing all that waste.

In an effort to get their situation under control, China has now imposed a 99.5% purity standard for imported recyclables, a standard that almost no one can meet. Other countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, have begun importing more recyclables, but they can’t match China’s former capacity.

Due to these changes, in the U.S., it’s more cost-effective to use new plastic than to use recycled materials.

Culture is Part of the Problem

It would be easy to blame the contamination issues on the recycling facilities, but the problem starts with those doing the recycling.

Americans like the idea of used material being repurposed and turned into something new. Unfortunately, this leads to an over-zealous approach. Many people throw almost anything into the recycle bin and hope for the best, without considering if it will cause problems.

Single-stream recycling bins contribute to this “recycle everything” approach. Now that people don’t have to be careful about separating materials into different containers, they’ve become more lax in recycling standards altogether.

This aspirational approach has led to increased contamination. Food is a major factor, especially since 89% of exported plastic comes from single-use food packages.[4] It also causes problems with the recycling machines since they can’t effectively sort out the materials that shouldn’t be there.

The other side of this is that when people think they can recycle plastics and other materials, they tend to buy more, which adds to the volume of plastic and paper. This includes online shopping, which is on the rise, and in February, for the first time, online sales surpassed retail store sales.[5] Those online purchases come with multiple layers of packaging that people often try to recycle, even if not everything is recyclable.

A Deluge of Complex Plastic

All of this leads to an alarming amount of plastic in our waste stream. Over 8 million tons of almost indestructible plastic have been made since 1960, and production shows no signs of slowing down.[6]

Additionally, that plastic is more diverse than ever, with different colors, blends, and additives that complicate the recycling process.

This is why only 9% of plastics were recycled even before China’s ban, with another 12% being burned and the rest ending up in landfills or the ocean.

Now, with even fewer options for recycling, those materials will pile up even faster.

Economic Impact

The challenges of recycling and handling all this plastic and paper hurt the environment, but they also have an economic impact. Here are some examples of the downstream effect in Maine:[7]

  • As of July 2018, ecomaine had to pay $30-$45 per ton of mixed paper, compared to making $107 per ton in 2017.
  • Biddeford considered stopping curbside composting due to rising costs and contamination rates of 30-35%.
  • Brunswick’s recycling budget has gone up by $150,000.
  • Caselle Waste Systems and Coastal Recycling increased prices from $45 to $140 per ton, leading to Gouldsboro canceling curbside services in September 2018, and other towns may follow.

Maine is far from alone. All 50 states have been hit by this, and when faced with the higher recycling rates, many municipalities are opting to throw everything away because they can’t afford the higher fees.

Unfortunately, throwing everything in the trash comes with its own price, and not only to the environment. Managing and shipping the extra waste is expensive, and some places are increasing fees in response. For example, from 2017 to 2018, landfill costs along the West Coast increased by $8 a ton.[8]

Changes Can Be an Opportunity

The news isn’t all bad, though. These changes are an opportunity for manufacturers, municipalities, and individuals to explore better ways of doing things.

Manufacturers can think ahead to how their products will be handled at end-of-life. If they design with recycling in mind, that would be a significant step in addressing the recycling problems.

Municipalities and waste management facilities can look at ways to improve the recycling process. They can also impose penalties for contamination and run educational campaigns to improve how people recycle. For example, three towns in Maine – Windham, Falmouth, and Scarborough – teamed up with the city of South Portland to hire summer interns to help educate people about what can be recycled.[9]

Individuals play a major role in two ways. They can recycle more effectively, only putting in clean and acceptable materials to reduce the contamination rates. They can also reconsider what they buy and purchase items that are more easily recycled. Better yet, they can buy less to begin with.

Facing Recycling Reality

China’s refusal to continue accepting contaminated recycling has, in some ways, done everyone favor by forcing people to face the reality of recycling. Now that the facts are out, and U.S. towns and cities are facing the financial effects, it’s time to reconsider buying and recycling trends.

By changing the way items are produced and recycled, and by being better educated about recycling, everyone has a chance to make things better, both for the economy and the environment.


[1] https://e360.yale.edu/features/piling-up-how-chinas-ban-on-importing-waste-has-stalled-global-recycling

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china-has-stopped-accepting-our-trash/584131/

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/06/china-plastic-recycling-ban-solutions-science-environment/

[4] ibid

[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/02/online-shopping-officially-overtakes-brick-and-mortar-retail-for-the-first-time-ever.html

[6] https://e360.yale.edu/features/piling-up-how-chinas-ban-on-importing-waste-has-stalled-global-recycling

[7] https://www.wastedive.com/news/what-chinese-import-policies-mean-for-all-50-states/510751/

[8] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china-has-stopped-accepting-our-trash/584131/

[9] https://www.journaltribune.com/articles/scarborough-leader/towns-combine-to-fight-recycling-contamination/

Photo: By USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency – Municipal recycling facilities, Montgomery County, MD. 2007 Credit USEPA, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51969963

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