Don’t Get Cut By China’s “National Sword” Recycling Policy

Sustainable City Network article (2018-10-08) highlighted a new recycling report prepared by the National League of Cities discussing how local governments can respond to the loss of China as a recycling processor. As previously reported on Conduit Street, China was previously one of the largest recycling processors in the world but has now strictly limited the import of recycling materials under its new “National Sword” policy. The closure of China is causing a recycling crisis throughout the United States as local governments no longer have a market for their collected recycled materials.

The article described China’s policy as well as its effect on United States recycling programs:

Historically, Chinese demand for materials to feed its manufacturing led it to purchase recyclables from all over the world, driving healthy commodity markets in paper, plastics and more. The rest of the industry relied on these sales, not taxes or fees, to fund their collection operations. But China’s new policy, National Sword, is upending this approach. Phase one, which took effect earlier this year, institutes a ban on the two most common U.S. commodity mixes, mixed paper and plastics.

The second phase, which will take effect in 2020, will be a total ban on all solid waste imports. This change could potentially diminish markets, cause market fluctuations and reversals, and lower revenues.

The article noted that in 2016 the United States exported 16 million tons of recycled material to China worth $5.2 billion.

The report lists a series of short-term actions and long-term recommendations for local recycling programs. Short-term actions included:

  1. Slower processing to clean up contamination;
  2. New and unconventional markets;
  3. Stockpiling;
  4. Landfilling;
  5. Waste-to-Energy;
  6. Education;
  7. Contamination fees and fines;
  8. Rate increases and hauling surcharges;
  9. Contract modifications to share risks; and
  10. Rethinking streams.

Long-term recommendations included:

  1. Conduct an economic analysis of your current waste management operations;
  2. Work with contractors;
  3. Ensure fees and rates reflect current costs;
  4. Evaluate local policies and economic incentives;
  5. Explore local and unconventional markets;
  6. Consider your streams; and
  7. Examine asset ownership and consider infrastructure investments.

The report also profiled how several cities are responding to the crisis, including Washington DC.

Useful Links

Rethinking Recycling National League of Cities Report

National League of Cities Website

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of China Recycling Ban