China’s New “Foreign Waste” Policy Poses Challenge For Local Recycling

Governing article (2018-01) reported that China has instituted a new “foreign waste” policy that essentially bans dozens of materials that can contain dirty or hazardous wastes. The ban includes contamination by food remnants. The ban is expected to affect state and local recycling programs throughout the United States, as China has been the largest importer of recyclable materials. The article noted that the United States exports about 66 percent of it recyclable paper and more than 40 percent of its recyclable plastic to China for processing. Instead, China will focus on processing recyclable materials collected from within its own boundaries. From the article:

In a statement on its website, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said the announcement, “coupled with earlier import restrictions on these materials, has severely disrupted recycling markets worldwide with major impacts in Oregon.” The Washington State Department of Ecology struck a similar note. “In the short term,” a statement on its website read, “more potentially recyclable materials are likely to go to the landfill because no market is available for them.” But both agencies urged residents to continue recycling as normal.

However, the article also noted that while posing a significant challenge to U.S. recycling programs, the ban also provided some opportunities. For example, local paper mils that use wastepaper to make cardboard and other products will have a larger amount of material to utilize. The ban will also force local governments to create alternative waste disposal and diversion methods and address longstanding contamination issues for recyclable materials. From the article:

In addition to a business opportunity, the decision could boost municipal programs. Phoenix’s waste innovation hub, the Resource Innovation Campus, focuses on what city leaders call the “5 R’s”: reduce, reuse, recycle, reconsider and reimagine….While China’s ban will certainly affect the city’s recycling efforts, it also plays into the hub’s larger goals of reusing and reimagining waste. “If you can come up with a way to use Phoenix’s garbage,” Mayor Greg Stanton said recently at a Governing event, “it’s yours.”

But perhaps the biggest opportunity, observers say, is for cities and recyclers to finally address the contamination issue that led in large part to China’s ban. U.S. consumers regularly throw unrecyclable materials into their curbside bins: items that range from the mundane — plastic forks, metal coat hangers, trash bags and even food waste — to the outrageous — diapers, syringes, appliances, bowling balls, doggie beds. In most cities, about 30 percent or more of what residents throw into their recycling bins cannot be recycled as is or at all. To fix the problem, more and more cities have been launching “recycle often, recycle right” campaigns to educate residents on what’s recyclable and what’s not. If they don’t want to see their hard work end up in a landfill, they might have to step up those efforts.