Reduce, Reuse…China-Cycle?

Is our recycling too trashy? China says so, and it is costing us.

Five Figures to Consider

31% of U.S. salvaged waste exports (worth $5.6 billion) went to China in 2017
0.5% is China’s new accepted contamination rate for salvaged waste imports
16% is the contamination rate in Waste Management’s U.S curbside recycling business
95% drop in salvaged mixed paper prices from 2017 high
4.4 pounds of solid waste generated per person per day in the U.S.

Green Fence. National Sword. Blue Sky. These are the aspirational names of China’s environmental policies that have put the $106 billion U.S. recycling industry through the shredder. China, the world’s largest importer of all types of reclaimed materials – metals, paper, rubber, plastics  – has been attempting to reduce scrap imports from the West for the past five years. This year China brought the hammer down. Beginning in January, the country prohibited 24 categories of scrap material for import. In March it adopted a 0.5% contaminant-free standard for waste imports; previous guidelines had varied from 1% to 5%. (In comparison, U.S.  curbside collection has close to a 16% contamination rate.) This month China abruptly added a 25% tariff on aluminum scrap. The trade war has come to waste, and the worldwide recycling industry is in disarray.

Last year the U.S. sent two-thirds of its reclaimed waste abroad; one-third of that, valued at $5.6 billion, went to China. Chinese manufacturers then used the re-processed material to make finished goods from newsprint to plastic containers and building products. This trade flow has been economical for the U.S. and China, which does not have the infrastructure to supply the raw materials its manufacturing plants demand. The trade is good business for shippers, too. Containers go to China full of reclaimed waste and come back to the U.S. full of “Made in China” electronics, furniture, toys and t-shirts. Call it China-cycling. But now China wants to change the system. In defense of its new restrictions, China told the World Trade Organization that “foreign garbage” is a pollutant full of hazardous waste that is damaging the Chinese environment. Since the pollutant rate of waste exports to China is within worldwide industry standards, recyclers suspect China has other motives, including cracking down on its own sprawling and polluting industry of local waste processors and retaliating against the current Administration’s own tariff threats. In May China shut down all permitting of U.S. waste material exports for more than two weeks, and it has increased inspections of shipping containers arriving from the U.S.

China’s new restrictions are impacting U.S. states from coast to coast. Post-consumer mixed paper and plastic, whose prices, according to, have dropped 95% and 50% respectively from their 2017 highs, are piling up at waste processing facilities. Oregon processors have sent at least 10,088 tons of recyclable material to landfills. In Massachusetts, ABC Disposal has reportedly threatened to stop collecting recyclables in five towns unless the communities pay more. And there is no sign that China will loosen up. According to Plastics News, the executive president of China Scrap Plastics Association, this month said that China’s scrap plastic imports could drop 95% this year. Meanwhile China plans to add 32 more categories of solid waste to its forbidden list. The reeling U.S. industry has appealed to the Administration for relief. Just this week the National Waste and Recycling Association sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence urging the federal government to take action against China’s restrictions.

What else can the U.S. do? Improve our own recycling habits and infrastructure. Experts had previously warned of the West’s dependence upon China for recycling, especially of plastics. Other developing markets, such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, cannot absorb the excess, nor do they offer the shipping efficiency of China, which enables containers to be filled in both directions. Priority one is cleaning up our recycling stream. Recyclers are trying to educate the public with efforts like Waste Management’s Recycle Often, Recycle Right campaign. Often non-recyclable items must be removed from the recycling stream by hand, and food and liquids, which are considered contaminants in recycling, ruin entire loads of material. So don’t put something in the recycling bin unless you are certain it’s recyclable. One greasy pizza box can ruin a bale of cardboard. One plastic bag can clog recycling equipment and force a shut-down. The group Recycle Across America and others are pushing for standardized labeling on products and recycling bins to reduce consumer confusion. And look for plastic bag bans to be in the news again. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just introduced a bill to ban single-use plastic bags in New York State by 2019. Municipalities will also likely review single-stream recycling, which involves all recyclables being dumped in one container. It increases recycling, but at the same time it increases contamination rates, too.

Some recycling challenges will be easier to solve in an economic way than others. Aluminum, for instance, is highly cost-efficient to recycle. Glass, on the other hand, is not. Two-thirds of U.S. paper mills already use some recovered paper and may be able to take more as prices drop. The economics will be different for municipalities in the Midwest where landfills are cheap than for cities on the coasts. One thing is certain. Recyclers are likely to increase pick-up charges to consumers if the market prices for recycled plastic and paper continue to fall. The U.S. needs a solution to the 4.4 pounds per person of solid waste it generates every day. Our recycling rate ranks 25th out of the top 25 world recyclers and at 33% is about half that of Germany. Long-term solutions might include converting waste into a renewable energy source and the development of plastic-eating enzymes.

China-cycling is over. The U.S. should take responsibility for its own waste by investing in recycling education, infrastructure and innovation. Let’s make solid waste independence as important as energy independence.


Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, National Waste and Recycling Association,, Solid Waste Association of North America, U.S. EPA, Waste Dive, Waste Management, World Economic Forum