In the 1990s, China actively sought to import plastic to develop its manufacturing capacity. It did not pay equal attention to developing its waste management infrastructure. China still has trouble managing its own garbage. The amount of trash in the recyclables it imported only added to its waste management problems.
China began to enforce its National Sword policy in January 2018. At first, it banned import of 24 categories of solid waste and placed strict limits on allowable contamination of the rest. A few months later, it more than doubled the list of prohibited materials.
The Chinese recycling ban is unrelated to the current trade controversies with the US. For one thing, it culminates a tightening of standards that began during the Obama administration. For another, it applies internationally, affecting Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as much as it does the US.
The problem from an Asian perspective
Much of the recycling industry found it cheaper to send as much as possible to China than to develop domestic markets for it. It exercised little quality control. As the quality of shipments decreased, the amount of junk they contained began to overwhelm Chinese landfills.
By 2009, China started to complain about the low quality of the recyclables it received. In 2013, it began to reject substandard shipments. The world failed to take its concerns seriously. Although many material recovery facilities (MRFs) worked hard to limit contamination to 5%, some shipped bales of materials with 10% or even 25% contamination.
China needs to improve its own capacity to handle its own waste. But there is no reason why it should use its landfills for imported waste. National Shield culminates a decade-long attempt to import only high-quality recyclables.
At first, such other Asian countries as Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam bought the bales that China wouldn’t accept. Before the end of 2018, however, these countries started their own crackdowns. They are also unwilling to become a dumping ground for the world’s trash.
Thailand has entirely prohibited imports of plastic waste and electronic waste. Malaysia revoked the import licenses of more than a hundred companies, at least until they improve their environmental standards. Vietnam has stopped issuing new import licenses to its companies.
How to fix recycling
In how we view it
With such a reduced market for recyclables, the prices MRFs can get have plummeted. Some municipalities have stopped accepting certain materials. Others have stopped recycling entirely.
Many cities still have an official policy of seeking to increase recycling rates. With the recycling industry in an uproar, that goal seems farther off.
We treat recycling as a waste management issue. In effect, we separate recyclable trash from landfill trash. Neither appears valuable.
Meanwhile, some companies depend on this waste as a resource for what they manufacture. Unifi, for example, makes a polyester fiber called Repreve® from recycled plastic bottles. The quantity of product it can make is limited by the quantity of available bottles. Bottling companies also need to recover bottles to boost the recycled content in new bottles.
Only a tiny fraction of plastic bottles enters the recycling stream. What would change if more of the public realized their value?
When China had its most voracious appetite for importing recyclables, manufacturers elsewhere found it difficult to compete for the material. Now that developed countries can no longer export cheaply to Asian countries, they will have to develop their own capacity to use post-industrial and post-consumer waste as a raw material for manufacturing.
National Sword has also affected Chinese manufacturers. Because the new policy does not allow them to import as much waste paper and plastic as they have been used to, some of them have bought American paper mills for the purpose of making recycled paper. Other companies have invested in American facilities to recycle plastic.
That increases the domestic market for recyclable paper, but, of course, these plants can’t accept junk, either.
In recycling, contamination means anything that doesn’t belong in a particular bale. So not only is that ketchup remaining in the bottle a contaminant, so is paper in a bale of plastic or plastic in a bale of paper.
Most American municipalities rely on single-stream recycling, where consumers put everything in a single container to be sorted at a MRF. Separating these comingled materials there instead of before collection is like trying to unscramble an egg.
In effect, the Chinese recycling ban has increased operating costs at MRFs as they scramble to meet more stringent requirements and decreased prices they can receive for their output. China has banned plastics numbered 3 through 7. Since that plastic represents only about 5% of the total of recycled plastic, some municipalities have stopped accepting it at the curb.
Many municipalities are beginning to spot-check containers for commercial and residential customers. They will reject those with too much contamination and may even impose a fine on customers who neglect to sort properly.
Ultimately, it will be necessary to persuade a critical mass of the public to put paper, plastic, metal, and glass at the curb separately instead of in a single container. Source separation results in a less contaminated product that will bring higher prices.
Related posts on this blog:
The cost of convenience in careless recycling(October 2017)
What does the Chinese crackdown on recycling mean?(November 2017)
The continuing recycling crisis: what can be done?(May 2018)
Recycling in the wake of the Chinese crackdown(August 2018)
Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam waste imports crackdown / Waste Management Review. December 19, 2018 h
Tough year for recycling industry to continue as China holds fast on tougher rules / Patrick Varine, Trib Live. December 16, 2018
Material recovery facility. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Haikou Harbor. Public domain from Max Pixel
Sorted recyclables. Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)
Recycling drop off center. Kansas City, Missouri Public Works. Link to its website no longer works.