Starting this month, China will no longer buy most of the paper and plastic U.S. consumers recycle. In July, Chinese officials told the World Trade Organization that they will limit the entry of “foreign waste” by banning two dozen types of materials that often contain “dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes.”
The announcement has thrown recycling programs across the country into turmoil. With China out of the picture, American waste and recycling firms are scrambling to find new buyers for the scrap they collect from curbside bins. For many years now, China has been the largest global importer of most recyclable materials. The U.S. alone exported about two-thirds of its wastepaper and more than 40 percent of its discarded plastic to the country last year. China plans to replace the materials it imports with recycled material collected at home.
In a statement on its website, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said the announcement, “coupled with earlier import restrictions on these materials, has severely disrupted recycling markets worldwide with major impacts in Oregon.” The Washington State Department of Ecology struck a similar note. “In the short term,” a statement on its website read, “more potentially recyclable materials are likely to go to the landfill because no market is available for them.” But both agencies urged residents to continue recycling as normal.
While there is no denying the ban will have serious repercussions on recyclers and recycling programs, many observers see China’s decision as a golden opportunity. Some U.S. paper mills that use leftover paper as pulp for the making of cardboard and other products, for example, will benefit from the ban. “America has an endless supply of waste and it just got more endless,” Anthony Pratt told The Wall Street Journal. Pratt is the executive chairman of Pratt Industries, which uses 100 percent recycled material to make boxes for Amazon, pizza joints and other companies.
In addition to a business opportunity, the decision could boost municipal programs. Phoenix’s waste innovation hub, the Resource Innovation Campus, focuses on what city leaders call the “5 R’s”: reduce, reuse, recycle, reconsider and reimagine. The idea is to turn, say, a beer bottle into new glassware or compost into natural gas. While China’s ban will certainly affect the city’s recycling efforts, it also plays into the hub’s larger goals of reusing and reimagining waste. “If you can come up with a way to use Phoenix’s garbage,” Mayor Greg Stanton said recently at a Governing event, “it’s yours.”
But perhaps the biggest opportunity, observers say, is for cities and recyclers to finally address the contamination issue that led in large part to China’s ban. U.S. consumers regularly throw unrecyclable materials into their curbside bins: items that range from the mundane -- plastic forks, metal coat hangers, trash bags and even food waste -- to the outrageous -- diapers, syringes, appliances, bowling balls, doggie beds. In most cities, about 30 percent or more of what residents throw into their recycling bins cannot be recycled as is or at all. To fix the problem, more and more cities have been launching “recycle often, recycle right” campaigns to educate residents on what’s recyclable and what’s not. If they don’t want to see their hard work end up in a landfill, they might have to step up those efforts.