For all the campaigns encouraging people to recycle more, few lay out exactly what happens to our recyclables once they go into the blue bin. Rather than our milk jugs magically reincarnating into toys on their own, for nearly three decades American recyclables were shipped cheaply to China, where they could be sold and given new shape.
That worked well enough, until China started cracking down. With dirty waste continuing to appear in imported recyclables, the rising cost of labor, and an abundance of the country’s own potentially recyclable waste, China no longer had the same financial and environmental incentives to accept the world’s waste.
Within the recycling community, there had been rumblings that China might change its policies, but the force of Operation National Sword, announced in July 2017, still came as a surprise. Going into full effect last March, it banned 24 types of scrap and implemented much stricter and more rigorous contamination standards which have been described as “impossible to reach.” As a result, local governments and the recycling industry are now facing an unprecedented recycling crisis, especially in plastics.
To put the impact of this current crisis into the context of past waste crises — like the Love Canal Disaster, where a residential neighborhood was built on a toxic waste dump with disastrous consequences, leading to the formation of the EPA’s Superfund program — and to understand how the effects of this policy are being felt across the United States, The Goods spoke to Kate O’Neill, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. Specializing in global environmental politics and the global politics of waste, her upcoming book Waste explores the extent to which waste can be a resource, and she has written and spoken extensively about the recycling trade with China.
What’s the history of the US sending recyclables to China?
China imported most of the world’s scrap, the good stuff as well as the more problematic, especially as its industry started to boom in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It was also connected with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. That was a period where China’s growth started booming. It was shipping goods to Europe and the States and that enabled a cheap process of shipping the scrap back to China in the holds of the ships that had brought all the stuff over. So that made it cheaper to ship to China than, say, to ship recycling across the country. And China was the market — that’s where it went to be used. We were shipping it to China because there was demand from its manufacturing sector because it wasn’t producing enough virgin plastic. So there was an economic rationale.
Is it that China doesn’t need our recyclables now that they have enough of their own?
It produces plastics for its domestic market and has a lot of plastic scrap of its own to recycle. This is very similar to the dynamics with electronic waste, because China imported a lot of that for a while, and illegally for quite a while too, and then started really cleaning up its recycling villages and creating more industrial parks for domestic recycling. It’s trying to do the same with plastics.
I also think Beijing is very concerned about their environmental quality and image overseas. As China is taking on this role as the world’s economic superpower, there are aspects that are not just pure economics or military power, but a sort of leadership by example. We see it with efforts in China to combat climate change. I also think that they were very concerned about being seen as the world’s dump site.