The Slatest

Huge Amounts of Americans’ Recycling Goes Into Landfills Because China Won’t Take It Anymore

Piles and bales of recyclable cardboard inside a giant warehouse
A pile of recycled cardboard sits at Recology’s Recycle Central in San Francisco in January. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When you toss your pickle jar or seltzer bottle into the recycling bin, you expect it to take a long journey that leads to reincarnation. You might briefly imagine its future transformed into a chianti jug or Cool Whip container. But for many vessels, it turns out there is no afterlife.

Because of a recently enacted Chinese ban on various plastics and papers, thousands of tons of recycled materials in America are being diverted to landfills and dumped alongside our more unsavory garbage, according to a New York Times report this week. That’s not only disappointing to environmentally conscious consumers—it’s also a problem for U.S. waste management companies in dozens of cities and towns, especially in Western states.

Americans recycle about 66 million tons of material each year, and about one third of that material is exported, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s how the process normally goes: When you dutifully leave your recycling on the curb, a municipal department, or sometimes a private company on contract, picks it up and delivers it to a plant. There, the marketable goods are sorted out, packaged in bales, and sold to domestic or international processors that refine the materials so they can be used to create new products.

Historically, China has been the top destination for those exported materials. It’s a trend that started in the 1980s as the country morphed into a manufacturing powerhouse. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste paper, metals and used plastic—7.3 million tons, to be exact.

But all that is changing with China’s ban, announced last summer as part of an anti-pollution campaign. After decades of taking on the world’s waste, China is taking drastic measures to curb pollution at home. The ban, which initially covered 24 materials, including waste textile materials and unsorted waste paper, was announced last July in a filing with the World Trade Organization. The document, filed by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, states: “To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”

In spite of U.S. opposition to the ban, China has since moved to ban 32 more solid waste products over the next two years, including stainless steel scrap, titanium scrap and wood waste, according to an announcement by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment on April 19. In addition to the ban, China has tightened its quality standards for materials like cardboard, putting in place a 0.5 percent contamination limit in March. Contaminates in a recyclable material such as cardboard, for instance, might include grease or a liquid-proof lining, and Chinese importers now reject any bale that exceeds that level of impurity.

The ban is already causing havoc for American waste management companies. If companies that relied on the Chinese market can’t clean up the material to meet the new standard, they have two options: stockpile it, or send it to landfills. The ban has led Phoenix-based Republic Services, one of the largest waste management companies, to divert more than 2,000 tons of paper to landfills. (It’s a fraction of the company’s total inventory—it handles more than 5 million tons of recyclables each year. But last year, the company sent little to no paper to landfills.) Smaller companies, like Medford, Oregon–based Rogue Disposal and Recycling, have had to divert all of their recycling to landfills since the ban took effect, as reported in the Times.

Although some companies are stockpiling recyclable material, either while looking for new processors or hoping for a change in policy, that approach has its limitations. Garten Services, in Salem, Oregon, had to send about 900 tons of recyclables to the landfill when its warehouse became full.

Since the ban took effect in January, thousands of tons of materials intended for recycling have actually been sent to landfills, according to the Times. And, in the first two months of the ban, American scrap exports to China have dropped by about 35 percent, according to Joseph Pickard, an economist at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Ironically, the ban could contribute to pollution in China, as Chinese manufacturers that once used imported scrap materials have to find new materials, including those that emit greenhouse gases in the production process.