By: Alex Foote
Alex Foote works in the recycling and paper manufacturing industry in New Jersey. Previously she studied sustainable development at the London School of Economics, with research focuses on China’s urban pollution and rural conservation practices. You can follow her on Twitter @afootie
Know that feeling when you’re out, finish a drink, and are about to throw the bottle away when you realize there are no recycling bins nearby? Then you spend an hour carrying around your trash? This is sort of the predicament Western countries are in now. Last July, China’s government announced that the country would no longer accept foreign garbage below a certain quality level after January 2018, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate health dangers brought by tainted waste. The ban includes 24 types of solid waste, unsorted paper, and low-grade plastics.
China had been the main importer of Western countries’ garbage and recycled materials. From 1995 to 2016, China’s imports of waste increased tenfold, with scrap plastics being the 6th-largest American export to China and Britain sending 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of recyclable materials there annually. But when Chinese port inspectors opened shipping containers, the stench was putrid. A “clean” shipment of cardboard would be visibly mixed with plastics. American recyclers designated low quality batches to send to China. Even then, China paid the highest prices due to a desperate need for resources to fuel the country’s booming manufacturing industries. Without a large imported supply of recyclables, Chinese manufacturers may use virgin materials, which emit more emissions during production.
These new restrictions have created headaches for exporting countries and companies. In May, the ban caused American used-cardboard prices to plummet overnight. Port inspectors in the U.S. and in China are now understaffed, so shipments slowly seep through, if approved at all. In the industry, rumors have spread that the China Certification and Inspection Group, a transnational company that conducts inspections at ports around the world, has considered hiring previous employees of major recyclable exporters since hiring and training new inexperienced auditors might cause further delays. After inspection, if one container is tainted, the entire order is shipped back at the exporting company’s expense. This leaves Western recyclers scrambling to find buyers elsewhere.
To meet China’s new standards, U.S. recycling companies have to upgrade their equipment, likely raising costs for taxpayers and governments. Some companies have already updated their machinery to accommodate growing amounts of cardboard waste from online retail. Others have resorted to slowing down conveyer belts and handpicking acceptable materials. Some waste management companies refuse to change their recycling practices, thinking China’s ban won’t last forever, or that they can find other buyers. Many of these local companies are family-owned and tentative to break the bank adapting for what they feel is a temporary measure by the Chinese government.
Experts fear that if these materials can’t be sent to China and companies in the U.S. aren’t able to keep up, recyclables will be sent to landfills or incinerated—both environmentally harmful options. To prevent landfill growth, we must improve our waste management and recycling systems here in the U.S. Environmentalists are calling on manufacturers to use alternative packaging methods or eliminate packaging materials altogether. Some suggest retailers should even retrieve boxes from consumers. Recycling industry companies can also support each other. For example, industry leaders, like America Chung Nam, are working with suppliers to make sure the batches are clean.
Local governments can also take policy action. In the U.K., a 5 pence tax on plastic bags reduced consumer usage by 90%. But banning plastics in Western countries will make little difference, since Asian countries account for over 60% of ocean plastics, while the U.S. only contributes 2%. Instead, municipal resources should focus on improving recycling processes and helping waste management companies adjust to these market changes.
We as shoppers can also step up. U.S. recycling companies report growing amounts of cardboard from residential areas. This is largely thanks to the e-commerce boom and our increased consumption of products which often leads to recyclable items inadvertently being sent to landfills. To help, we can consume less, demand online retailers reduce packaging, and check our local recycling programs. While China’s ban has put the U.S. in a difficult situation, we can take advantage of this opportunity to innovate and improve our recycling processes here at home.
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Photo by: Martha Molfetas | From our ‘Miami Sea Level Rise’ project