When it comes to the 3 Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), America has gotten pretty good at the third one. Most Americans-94% of us-have access to recycling, and last year China paid $5.6 billion for our scrap materials. Recycling has become a booming business for both countries. China needs low cost raw materials for manufacturing and America needs to dispose of hundreds of millions of tons of recycled waste. In addition, it’s cheap material to transport. The United States imports boatloads of manufactured goods from China but the trade deficit creates little demand for those shipping containers on the way back. As a result, the cost to ship recycled material back to China is super cheap.
Sounds Like a Win-Win, But…
The problem is that America’s recycling has focused more on quantity than on quality. In July China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said they have been finding dirty and hazardous waste mixed in with the recycled materials. It was announced that by the end of 2017 China will have new import quality standards and ban imports of 24 categories of solid waste including plastic, textiles and mixed paper as part of a government campaign against foreign garbage. Much of the recycling that China has previously imported will have nowhere else to go. China’s current standards allow up to 2% of non-recyclable material but those standards will change to 0.3%, which scrap industry groups claim is nearly impossible to meet.
The ban creates a serious problem for American waste collectors. If materials like mixed-paper and plastic aren’t being exported to China, the U.S may soon have paper and plastic piling up around the country. The sudden policy change has left many recycling collectors without a viable market. As a result, prices may increase to cover the costs of additional labor and sorting equipment, single stream collection might be eliminated, or unprofitable materials could simply be sent to the landfill or the incinerator.
What Can You Do?
Reduce. If you reduce your consumption in the first place we can collectively have a significant effect on reducing the material being dumped into landfills. The average American creates twice as much waste as people in the rest of the world. Now that recycling is no longer guaranteed, we have an opportunity and an obligation to rethink our consumption and shift our habits.
Reuse. 50% of all plastic products are used once before being thrown away. Reducing your use of disposable paper and plastic can have a huge impact on how much waste ends up in landfills or drifting in far off oceans. Avoiding disposable non-recyclable items like plastic bags and cutlery can also reduce waste headed for the landfill.
Recycle better. The Chinese were tired of receiving recycling contaminated with syringes, dirty diapers and other non-recyclables. It’s hard to blame them for not wanting to buy our garbage. Research what your local recycling provider accepts and doesn’t accept. Following the guidelines can increase the value of your recyclables. Rinsing bottles and cans and flattening cardboard also reduces the chance of contamination. By treating your recycling less like trash and more like a valued commodity you can do your part to create a more desirable end product that is commercially viable overseas or here within the United States.