China imports more recyclable goods than any other country in the world. But earlier this year, China stopped accepting a long list of imported plastic and paper waste, and implemented much stricter guidelines for what it’s willing to take in.
The dramatic policy change is part of a national campaign to reduce the country’s carbon footprint, but China’s decision to no longer be the trash collector for the rest of the world is causing major problems for U.S. waste processing operations. Across the U.S., recyclers had been accustomed to sending major portions of their paper and plastic to China, but now they’re scrambling to find other takers.
Already, more than a dozen states have started to giving companies waivers to throw out recyclables, including Massachusetts, where more than 4,000 tons of single-stream recyclables and more than 10,000 tons of glass have been sent to landfills. VICE News traveled to Massachusetts to visit a processor that used to have an average of a few dozen one-ton cubes of recyclables sitting around and now has thousands.
A couple things that I found to be pretty interesting (and possibly debatable, I am by no means an expert in waste management):
– China did not just suddenly stop accepting our waste without any warning. They have had major internal and external crackdowns on waste imports since 2013 (Google “China Green Fence”).
– One of the many reasons why China is such a great option for our trash is that there is a ton of demand for cargo ships to move stuff from Asia to the US but not much demand for the return journey, which makes it super cheap for us to send our waste on ships going back to China. For example, I found that the price of sending a shipping container to China from LA via cargo ship was almost three times cheaper than sending it to Chicago via rail.
– The popularity of using single stream recycling in the US has put us in a really bad position now. What’s interesting is that single stream collection (as opposed to multi stream, where the consumer separates plastics, metals, and paper) helps to increase the total quantity of material recycled but often produces a worse quality material. But when a state like California sets very high recycling goals, it makes sense for contracted waste management companies to use single stream in order to boost recycling numbers, even if the amount actually getting turned into new products is less.
– It is really scary seeing our waste go to countries in Southeast Asia as a solution to this problem. China’s system of recycling was largely unregulated both internally and externally; I imagine that countries like Vietnam have even less regulation.
If you are in an engineering related field, I would highly recommend looking into waste sorting technology and some of the cool startups that are gaining popularity after China has left us to deal with all of our trash. There are billions of pounds of valuable materials that people will literally pay to have taken away.