How China’s New Ban On “Foreign Trash” Is Driving Your Recyclables Right Into A Landfill

For years, China has been known as the world’s factory, a place where low costs and surplus workers fed the ubiquitous “Made in China” tag.

Lesser known was that China also operated as the world’s de facto recycling bin, even paying money for recycled plastics, papers and scrap metal that fueled the country’s industrial boom. Some regular trash was inevitably get mixed in with these goods, but this was generally no sweat. The country was rife with workers happy to sort through the thicket, creating the dream scenario where another country was actually willing to pay America money to handle its scraps.

So, The Party’s Jan. 1 decision to refuse “foreign garbage” — including scores of low-grade recyclables that the U.S. and Europe had exported to China for years — caught many Americans off-guard. After years of sorting and outsourcing our used plastics, paper and glass to China, many U.S. consumers are confronting a new and uncomfortable reality – those once-recyclable items are now heading for the landfill.

China’s new rules disproportionally affect Western U.S. states, many of whom found it quite cost effective to send much — if not all — of their recycling to China.
Some Portland residents were told to throw their plastics in the trash, because their local recycling facility, which once shipped everything to China, didn’t have the means to take everything in-house. Others find themselves looking beyond China for new buyers, and/or making dramatic policy changes. For example, the entirety of Douglas County, Oregon, will stop accepting glass, plastic and some types of papers starting June 1. On that same day, the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, will implement similar measures.

Part of the problem is that users regularly mix garbage into curbside recycling bins, effectively contaminating the entire container. Once upon a time, workers in China would patiently sift through the materials, but no longer. Nor do U.S. facilities have the bandwidth to do this sorting themselves, which means that contaminated bins could now get sent into the landfill, with perfectly recyclable items inside. Meanwhile, some places are mulling individual bins for paper products, many of which are suddenly unwelcome in China.

But while China’s refusal to accept foreign trash might be causing headaches at home, there may be a silver lining. As one person aptly noted in The New York Times, recycling is actually the third “R,” after “reduce” and “reuse” – though a pain in the short-term, the stricter policy could force us all to reconsider our overall levels of consumption. Others have proposed robots do the picking, noting that machines are significantly more accurate than humans when sorting recyclables from trash. Regardless, disposable coffee cups, greasy pizza boxes, empty yogurt cups and other plastic containers, plastic bags, and greasy takeout containers no longer belong in the recycling bin. A new dawn of recycling is upon. Now it’s on you to do your part.

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J. Swanson is a writer, traveler, and animal-enthusiast based in Seattle, an appropriately pet-crazed city where dog or cat ownership even outweighs the number of kids. When the weather permits, she likes to get outside and explore the rest of the Pacific Northwest, always with a coffee in hand.