Ripple Effects of China’s Recycling Policy

December 9, 2018
Ripple Effects of China’s Recycling Policy

Trash piles up around the world as China’s 2018 “National Sword” policy cuts off global recycling at the knees.

It used to be that ships bringing Chinese goods to the U.S. returned home full of our recyclables, feeding a lucrative industry in China.  However, corruption, abuses, and environmental pollution in China led the government there to put the brakes on this industry beginning this year.

Whereas China and Hong Kong bought 60 percent of the G7’s plastic waste in the first half of 2017, that figure decreased to 10 percent in the first half of 2018. Bales of plastic that U.S. recyclers used to sell for $20 per ton now cost cities $10 per ton for disposal.

While China will still accept some cardboard, plastic, glass, and scrap metal, it can only have an impurity level of 0.5 percent, a standard most U.S. recyclers cannot achieve. Recyclers, governments, and consumers around the world are being forced to rethink their use of plastics, paper waste, and e-waste.


Video Spotlight: China Trash Ban Creates Crisis for US Recyclers


This post is based on the Australian Financial Review article, The $280b crisis sparked by China calling time on taking in “foreign trash”, by Leslie Hook and John Reed, October 31, 2018, and the YouTube video, China Trash Ban Creates Crisis for US Recyclers, by VOA News, June 8, 2018. Image source: Photodisc/Getty Images.

Discussion Questions:

1. What changes are waste recyclers seeing in their supply chain?

Guidance: More than 270 million tons of waste is recycled each year. Most of that waste had been recycled in China until the ban. So far, much of it is being taken in by other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, but not without raising environmental concerns and new restrictions there as well.  Many new recycling businesses have sprung up to process shipments of recyclables, but local residents are concerned at the lack of regulation and the amount of air and water pollution being generated by these factories.

2. What types of design changes might be envisioned to reduce the future creation of waste?

Guidance: Some, albeit a limited number of, consumers in California, France, and Italy are looking to the past for solutions to some of today’s one-time-use packages and wasteful use of plastics.  They patronize stores which sell items in bulk, which consumers put into their own multi-use bottles and bags.

Ultimately, with municipalities rejecting many items that used to go into recycling bins and potentially increasing what they charge customers to empty their weekly trash, cutting back on the creation of waste products may become more important to consumers who do not want to pay more and more for waste removal.

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