Thousands of shipping containers full of paper, plastics and aluminum tossed by Americans used to arrive in China every year for recycling.
‘Foreign garbage’ go home: China’s trash ban is killing US recycling
But ever since China tightened up rules on foreign waste imports in January, a huge amount of the made-in-America trash now has nowhere to go.
Some of the recyclables now end up in landfills, some are heading to other Asian nations and the rest is simply piling up in warehouses and parking lots stateside.
The worst may be yet to come. On Thursday, Beijing announced it would add another 32 types of wastes to the import ban.
Here’s what you need to know about China’s war against “foreign garbage” – and how it’s affecting the straws and paper cups you throw away every day.
Why does the US ship its waste to China?
The trash trade benefits both China and the US economically.
China has the cheap labor to process the waste, and a massive manufacturing sector hungry for the metal, plastic and paper that is extracted from America’s garbage.
Exporting scrap materials to China also carries low shipping costs, since the waste can be put in the very same shipping containers that bring consumer goods back to the US.
Before the recent garbage crackdown, China was world’s biggest trash buyer while the US was its biggest seller.
In 2016, Americans shipped over 16 million metric tons of scrap materials to China, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. That's scrap worth more than $5.8 billion.
What is China’s latest waste ban?
China has made a series of moves to block the import of illegal and low-quality waste since 2013.
In July last year, China notified the World Trade Organization that as of January 2018, it would stop importing 24 types of solid waste, including various categories of plastics, paper and textiles.
Sixteen more items, including scrapped ships and cars, will be banned by the end of the year. Another group of 16 items will be banned by the end of 2019, the government said on Thursday.
From March onwards, the country has also cut maximum contamination levels for imported recyclables. Plastics and paper, for example, cannot contain more than 0.5% of contaminants.
“The 0.5% standard would be nearly impossible for our members to meet, and it could cause some short-term disruptions in the industry,” Darrell Smith, the president of the National Waste and Recycling Association, said in February.
Recyclers say there is no machinery available that can completely sort out the contaminants – such as the leftover drink in a plastic soda bottle – and the cost of manual sorting is too high.
Why is the Chinese government banning trash?
Although recycling is considered good for the environment, poorly sorted scrap materials can contain toxic heavy metals or hazardous bacteria.
In recent years, domestic reports about China’s polluted “waste towns” have caused growing public frustration with the multi-billion industry.
Chinese nationalists have lauded the foreign waste ban as a victory for the country. But analysts have also pointed out that much of the pollution comes from domestic waste, and warned that the ban on “foreign garbage” will lead to job losses in China.
Kate O’Neill, associate professor of global environmental politics at the University of California, Berkeley, said the import ban was driven by both environmental and political concerns.
“China is asserting its role in the international system,” she said. “It is saying: ‘if we are going to be this economic super power, we cannot be seen as the world’s garbage dump’.”
So what is happening to America’s garbage now?
Recyclers are looking for new markets to take on the enormous amount of American waste, but no nation is likely to fill China’s shoes any time soon.
As a result, some scrap brokers are seeing waste piling up in warehouses or at ports.
Pioneer Recycling, a recycling operator in Oregon, used to send about 82,000 tons of scrap plastics and mixed paper to China every year, but it has stopped all shipping to China this year in light of the ban.
The company is now moving more waste to domestic mills as well as countries including Vietnam, Indonesia and India, but its owner Steve Frank said it would be a challenge for the plan to work in the long term.
“You cannot hide from China for very long. The rest of the world cannot absorb it all,” Frank told Inkstone. “Will China get some sanity and come back in?”
Facing the imminent crisis, some US cities have had no choice but to cut back on their recycling programs or charge residents more for taking their recyclables.
For now, California, Washington and Montana are among the states experiencing the most disruption from the China ban, according to Waste Dive, a news site that tracks the new policy’s impact on the US.
For example, a major recycling company in Missoula, Montana decided it would stop taking plastics from May 7, while the City of Bakersfield, California has proposed to increase recycling rates by 3.5%.