China Wants Only the Cleanest Trash

September 14, 2018
China Wants Only the Cleanest Trash

The Chinese government recently banned imports of low-grade recyclables.

For decades, Western countries sent their paper waste and plastic trash to China where they were sorted manually before being processed and re-used in manufacturing. To overcome the severe shortage of recyclables caused by the ban, Chinese manufacturers are now setting up processing facilities in the US and sending the recyclable materials to China.

Some existing US recycling programs have struggled to meet the purity standards imposed by the Chinese government.


Video Spotlight: Plastic China (scroll down to the trailer)


This post is based on the Bloomberg article, China Wants Only the Cleanest Trash, by M. Sasso, August 22, 2018. Image sources: frameangel/123RF and Ralph125/Getty Images.

Discussion Questions

1. According to the article, why has the Chinese government banned imports of “dirty” trash?

Guidance: Trash sent to China contained contaminants which can be hazardous (e.g. lead and mercury) and also hinder the recycling process. Other reasons include China’s anti-pollution crackdown and the 2017 release of the documentary “Plastic China,” which featured Chinese children sorting trash in piles of garbage imported from other countries. The documentary put pressure on China to stop such practices and therefore ban imports of low-grade plastic and paper scraps.

2. For China, what are the factors that make it attractive to source recyclables from the US?

Guidance: The Chinese economy has expanded for decades. As exports grew, so did the demand for cardboard boxes, resulting in the depletion of local forests. Therefore, China has become dependent on imports of fiber to run the paper mills. Similarly, recycled plastics have been an important material source in Chinese manufacturing. Also, US recyclables are cheaper than Chinese recyclables, making it cost-effective to source these items from the US.  Finally, a surplus of containers on the US West coast has kept shipping costs to China relatively low.

3. Why are US plants struggling to meet the Chinese standards for “clean” trash? Where does US trash end up?

Guidance: Several recycling operations in the US produce inferior grades of recycled materials. Large quantities of non-recyclable items enter processing plants. Sorting the recyclable trash is a dangerous, labor-intensive, and therefore expensive task. Moreover, existing equipment also used in sorting cannot reach the purity standards required by China. Sometimes, the cost of dumping is lower than the cost of sorting “clean” trash and recycling it.

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