There is something satisfying about gathering and sorting our recyclables, then taking them all to our local recycling center where they magically “go away”. But there is no such thing as “away”.
China started importing scrap in 2001, after joining the World Trade Organization. Soon the bulk of the world’s recyclables went to China; materials such as metal, plastics, textiles, rubber and paper. In 2012 recyclables became the US number two export to China, second only to soybeans. According to the International Solid Waste Association, in 2012 China bought 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste exports. Whereas, the United States sent the bulk of all recyclables including 68 percent of all aluminum scrap, 70 percent recovered paper and 58 percent plastic scraps.
Industry preferred China due to their lower wages and minimal environmental standards. Especially prevalent plastics were sorted, cleaned, and broken down into plastic resin used to make everything from cosmetics to laptop cases and shipped back. But with those recyclables came trash, mountains of it. China became the world’s trash dump. The Chinese citizens became outraged over the noxious air and polluted waterways so in 2013, the government implemented Operation Green Fence.
With China’s new standards, when ships contained recyclables with higher than 1.5 percent contamination, non-compliant import licenses were suspended, and the shipment was rejected and sent back. This caused a huge industry upset. Commodity value went down as we accumulated a huge stockpile of recyclables.
Unfortunately, some traders have chosen to continue to sell their lack-luster recyclables to countries with lower standards such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. Once there those countries are saddled with extra trash, then likely sort it and ship it on to China. Other recycling facilities have built in a second sorting step and send the recyclables on to China or simply keep those valuable resources here.
With these new standards, we have a real opportunity to become innovative and build a strong domestic recycling market in the United States, embracing the value of recyclables instead of shipping it away. Improved systems will create resources with higher value and keep them away from our landfills. By creating our own sustainable recycling markets, we will save energy, reduce pollution, create jobs and boost our economy.Here are ways we can help –
Reduce and Reuse First – The thought of empty plastic water bottles traveling all the way to China is mind boggling!
Better Recyclables – Sort your recyclables as requested and don’t drop off soiled containers or trash.
Recycling Dumpsters for Businesses – Support any minimal fees local recycling centers need to charge for the convenience of picking up your recyclables.
Close the Loop – Buy Stuff made out of recycled materials.