What’ll happen when China no longer buys our Waste?

by Luke on September 19, 2012

The U.S. recycling market will be faced with a massive issue in the coming years.  The number one U.S. export to China is waste:  scrap metal and waste paper.  China also buys an incredible amount of our recycled plastics, well over 50% of it.  China is now establishing much stricter regulations on imports of recycled materials.  Beginning by the end of this year…

  • They will strictly enforce regulations that prohibit the import of unwashed, post-consumer plastics and they are banning plastics waste in all food-contact plastic bags.
  • Processing of plastics waste in residential areas will be prohibited.
  • They will not allow companies to sell unwashed leftover plastic from sorting of imported plastic and paper and they are banning the transfer of imported waste to a company other than that allowed by the import license.
  • They are inspecting plastic recycling companies and publishing a list of qualified recyclers, as well as publishing a list of companies that fail inspections.  Companies who fail the test for environmental protection will not be allowed to import plastic waste.

By tightly regulating their recycling market, which no doubt is needed for their environmental and social preservation, there will surely be some Chinese recyclers that close down and the remaining ones will be burdened with increased costs and requiring higher standards for their imports.

Bails of Mixed Plastics

The implication on the U.S.? This could substantially reduce the market demand for U.S. recycled materials in China which means that recyclers here will have a harder time getting rid of the bails of mixed rigid plastics (strawberry containers, spinach tubs, other odd-shaped containers).  Side note: if you’re interested in why all plastics can’t be recycled, you can read a post on that here.

All of this is bad news for U.S. recyclers in the near term.

Here’s my early predication for how it will go down:

  • Short-term: U.S. recyclers will be negatively impacted.  They’ll have to find another market to sell the materials they normally send to China.  That could mean that they send more to landfills in the near-term because there aren’t any other strong, viable markets for those materials right now.
  • Long-term: U.S. regulation and industry groups need to step up their efforts for pushing for the recycling of non-bottle rigid plastics.  The Association for Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers has been doing a great job leading the effort with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the Foodservice Packaging Institute also contributing to the cause.  Regulation and action by the government is needed though.  What’s also needed is an end-market for recycled materials.  Essentially, more manufacturers need to demand recycled plastics to use in their products.  That means that the economics need to be in favor of choosing a recycled plastic vs a virgin plastic.  Regulation can impact that as well as better, more widespread technology for recyclers.  If this can be accomplished, we’ll be okay in the long-term.

This is going to be a challenging journey and my guess is that it’s going to get harder before it gets easier.

How consumers can help…

The best thing that the average consumer can do to help the cause is to be vocal with companies about asking for products made from recycled materials.  The other thing you can do is be vocal with your local municipality about asking for better recycling programs.  Recycling regulation and market demand for recycled materials need to occur in unison for the quickest path towards solving this problem.

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