China’s Import Ban Greatly Impacts America’s Recycling Market

Recycling has been a growing phenomenon ever since environmentalists persuaded the government to implement more sustainable means when dealing with household waste. Growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, my elementary school teachers frequently instructed us on the proper ways to recycle, whether that was looking at the bottom of various recyclables like milk or egg cartons to see whether they had the proper number in the “recycle logo” that indicated if we should or not should place them in the blue recycling bins.

Back then, there was more of a stress on the “three-bin system” that separated trash, recyclables, and compost. We learned of the three R’s and sang in unison the catchy phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Although many people and businesses are becoming more environmentally friendly, it seems senseless to ask where exactly all of our recyclables end up.

Surprisingly, for years, merchants in China have been buying American recyclables to sift through the heaping pounds of trash to collect scrap paper and cardboard for packaging purposes. Thus, all of the trash Americans put in their blue bins on their curbs are being compressed into 1-ton bales and sold to other countries overseas.

Going against this “three-bin system”, America has recently been trying to place as much recyclables into one bin and then shipping the waste to China. The responsibility then falls onto China to sort out the waste. This service cultivated “third world-like sorting operations,” and thousands of poor, rural migrants were employed to filter through the enormous piles of waste to recover the usable materials and throw away the rest.

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Once the packing boxes are repurposed, they are then shipped back to the United States filled with Chinese-manufactured goods. China benefited greatly from business with America over the years because it is much cheaper to make cardboard or plastic using recycled material rather than making it from scratch.

To what extent does China impose on the importation of America’s recyclables? While the U.S. exports 30% of all recycled material, half of that 30% goes to China. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., China imported 17 million tons for about $5.5 billion, in 2016. Although many regions of the U.S. export varying amounts to China, western states make up a large portion of China’s market in the exportation of recycled waste.

This repetitive cycle and synergistic relationship between China and the U.S. has been going on for years. Thus, it came as a shock to the U.S. in July of 2017 when Beijing notified the WTO of their plan to stop importing of “foreign garbage.” The ban would commence at the beginning of 2018.

The main reason for this regulation was that “large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes [were being] mixed in [with] the solid waste that [could] be used as raw materials.” Ultimately, China has been trying to reduce their pollution rates by  implementing programs that will clean up their environment. The importing of America’s waste was causing a negative impact on China’s air with the large amounts of hazardous waste incorporated with the recyclable material.

Before the ban, most of the waste China imported was being thrown away in landfills. Thus, many of the recyclables that America believed were being reused were ultimately thrown away by China. Although many people have been recycling for years now, there is still a misconception as to what trash can be recycled and what cannot. Some materials that are found in recycling bins but should not be placed in them include: plastic grocery bags, grease-stained pizza boxes, and wax-coated frozen-food packages.

Speculations emerged saying China implemented this ban because Beijing “hopes to tap into its own growing consumer base as the foundation of its recycled materials industry.” A way for China to not experience the same environmental hazards when sifting through America’s waste is by implementing a rigorous program of inspecting piles of waste and sifting out the contaminated trash, food waste, or even materials with moisture in reject bales.

America has been highly dependent on China’s business in buying their “unwanted” materials. However, most Americans today have been unaware of these large exchanges with China throughout the years.

Consequentially, China’s import ban on America’s waste has caused the U.S. to frantically find a new market to purchase the recyclables. In the meantime, however, a large portion of the waste are being thrown away into landfills. This operation is the exact opposite of what recycling is supposed to do for the environment. It is astounding to know that in all of these years of recycling that China, not America, was the country reusing material for manufacturing. I assumed, while growing up, that America used their own facilities to operate on repurposing waste in hopes of being a more sustainable society. Sadly, I was wrong.

It is not uncommon for many organizations to have their products manufactured in China and then shipped back to America. One notable company is Hallmark, a manufacturer of greeting cards, based in Kansas City. Due to an increase in competition from the Internet, Hallmark has been “outsourcing its workforce overseas for the past decade.”

For any special occasions, Hallmark offers greeting cards that are made from 100% recycled material. These cards are much cheaper compared to other Hallmark cards. If one were to look at the back of these eco-friendly cards, one would most likely see the phrase: “Made in China.” It would not surprise me that Hallmark has been manufacturing many of their products abroad because of China’s large operations with repurposing cardboard and plastics. It will be interesting to see if China’s ban on the importation of America’s recyclables will have any impact on Hallmark.

America, a modernized country that is highly innovative in technology, has a societal duty to protect the environment. Therefore, the United States will have to put in more energy and attention to this issue of recycling in finding safer and cleaner ways of reusing material other than relying on countries overseas. Because the U.S. government has been in charge of this trade with China, I speculate that the government will try to find the easiest and cheapest way in disposing of our recyclables. I am certain that most Americans are unaware of these operations with China. Thus, I hope more people will learn about what really happens to their waste and support the need for the U.S. to actually recycle instead of throwing away the recyclables in landfills or exporting the remains to other countries.

 

Sources:

https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2018-03-27/china-doesnt-want-your-trash

https://www.pitch.com/news/article/20601279/hallmark-cares-enough-to-send-the-very-best-jobs-to-china

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/recycling-you-may-be-doing-it-wrong-180951192/

 

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