China’s Waste Import Ban: An Opportunity for Real Recycling

China’s Waste Import Ban: An Opportunity for Real Recycling
Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

China's move to reject the world's waste is an opportunity to think seriously about the true costs of recycling.

Until earlier this year, almost every time Americans recycled something, it would at some point end up in China. Then, just a few months ago, China initiated it’s National Sword campaign, drastically limiting imports of 24 types of plastic, paper and other scrap materials.

This policy shook the waste industry. China previously imported up to 56 percent of global plastic waste.

Municipalities suddenly lacked an end point for their so called recyclable waste streams. The U.S. exports one-third of it’s recycling, with half of that going to China. In 2015, the U.S. shipped 16 million tons of scrap commodities to China, and all that waste suddenly needs a new home.

The problem is so severe, waste publications have created trackers to map the impact in all 50 U.S. states. Reading between the headlines, you can see tremendous frustration from the U.S. recycling industry and municipalities. The once seemingly unchallenged norm of recycling had its dirty curtain raised, but for those who pay attention to China and work on waste, we saw this coming. As early as 2013, China implemented limitations, known as Operation Green Fence, on waste imports, but cities had grown dependent on China’s cheap disposal.

Cash rules everything around me

But why did the waste go to China in the first place, why didn’t the U.S. or Europe build enough recycling facilities?


The cheapest way to deal with waste is to illegally dump it. Next: landfilling. The rule of thumb in the industry is that it costs about US$10 (can be much higher in some states) per ton of waste to landfill. That’s not what waste management companies charge, but simply how much it costs to actually do. Therefore, anytime a waste “solution” exceeds that cost, it eats into the profit of the waste management company. And these companies are not altruistic NGOs.

Recycling costs money, yet cities continue to demand it without appreciating the full investment. You need to build plants, guarantee feedstocks, which change dramatically by the season, and also guarantee final markets.

Quality recycled goods require careful sorting, something the U.S. never adopted.

The price of oil also heavily impacts the recycling industry due to operating costs and recycled plastics competing directly with virgin plastics. If the cost of oil is low, plastic is cheap and there is less of a reason to recycle. Waste companies then sit on these recycled commodities until the price increases. Recycling, while it has environmental benefits, is not an environmental industry.

Quality recycled goods require careful sorting, something the U.S. never adopted.

Therefore, because of price and capacity, the easiest option became exporting waste to China. Initially, they welcomed the raw materials and found a use for the previously empty shipping containers coming back to the country. But what changed?

China’s rising waste

China enacted these limitations for two reasons.

Firstly, China showed strong evidence that countries sent poor quality recyclables -- borderline garbage.

Anecdotally, I have heard cases of cities “padding” recyclables (which are charged by weight) with sand or other weights to increase the value. Shipments included food waste, mixed materials, and sometimes even rats.

Recyclables are only as valuable as the quality of the product they create. To create good products, you need clean inputs. It’s simply financially impossible to process dirty plastics or paper. Even worse, as the materials mix together, high-quality recycling requires high-quality separation. This is also why we can’t recycle ocean plastics -- it’s economically impossible.

Secondly, China’s domestic waste production continues to climb.

Despite the almost free import of raw materials from abroad, it’s even cheaper and easier to get them from your home country. The costs of dealing with poor-quality imports simply fell below what China could produce itself. It’s difficult to find statistics about China’s waste outputs, but the World Bank estimated that China’s municipal waste production would more than double from 520,000 thousand tons per day in 2010 to 1.3 million tons per day by 2025.

China probably produces enough waste in a month to make up for what the U.S. sends in a year.

China is expected to produce 1.3 million tons of waste per day, enough to fill 13 Panamax-class shipping vessels, by 2025.

Waste not want not

Sharing waste knowledge is important. For too long municipalities in the U.S. have mislead their constituents about what happens with their waste.

Europe and the U.S. (and the rest of the world) in the short term, will either landfill, store, or send their waste to the next low-income country destined to be buried in foreign garbage. In the medium term, recycling facilities might open up -- Chinese companies are already investing in U.S. plants.

But more likely, they will just wait until a new country becomes the dumping ground of choice.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Cities should invest in new recycling technologies to manage their waste locally. For island countries, plastic-to-fuel processing facilities turn certain types of plastic waste into cleaner diesel fuel. This reduces oil imports and manages plastic waste.

Enforcing better sorting policies and building high-quality processing plants can create strong reclaimed materials, reducing pressure on local wildlife. We don’t need to drill for more oil or cut down more trees if we use existing resources.

Recycling is the secret weapon to build better economies, protect wildlife and ensure local supply chain resilience.

Taiwan seems largely unaffected by China's National Sword policy for high-value recyclable commodities due to it’s localized recycling industry. Word around the trash can is that paper recycling was hit hard, but plastic, metals, and e-waste continue on with their processing.

Any country or city could adopt Taiwan’s successful extended producer responsibility and waste charging schemes. In so doing they can build their own localized economies and resources networks. It’s a matter of political will, not cost.

Any country or city could adopt Taiwan’s successful extended producer responsibility and waste charging schemes.

To be clear, banning plastic bags or straws won’t make a difference. China was processing industrial-scale trash. Therefore, the solutions must be proportionally large and comprehensive.

Yes, you should keep recycling, but you should demand for comprehensive solutions over single-item bans. Demand better legislation. California still doesn’t have extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation and continues to delay, even after after years of fierce yet misguided industry opposition.

Corporates like Coca-Cola now rally behind calls to increase recycling and make commitments on recyclable waste, yet just one or two years earlier fought against recycling legislation. It doesn’t need to be this way, the designers of products can take their end of life into account.

I’m glad China enacted these policies, it creates an opportunity for high-income countries to use their resources to develop truly circular economies. But, it depends on the active engagement of citizens to articulate to local policymakers the importance of recycling. Otherwise, cities will just find the next cheapest country to make their long-distance landfill.

Read Next: Taiwan’s Waste Reduction Miracle

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston