Where does your recycling go? In most places in the U.S., you throw it in a bin, and then it gets carted off to be sorted and cleaned at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). From there, much of it is shipped off to mills, where bales of paper, glass, aluminum, and plastic are pulped or melted into raw materials. Some of these mills are here in the U.S. And once upon a time, many of them were in China.
Since 2001, China was one of the biggest buyers of American recycling. That is, until last year, when China pulled a move that no one saw coming: they stopped buying.
Suddenly, a lot of materials that were getting recycled previously weren’t anymore. The lists of accepted materials are shrinking in some cities. In some places, certain types of plastic and paper and cardboard simply aren’t being collected anymore — they go to landfill or incineration, instead. Even those municipalities that are still collecting recycling are having a hard time finding places to sell it. Instead of making money by selling recyclable materials, they are losing money by paying storage companies to take it. And this isn’t just a problem in the United States — Europe, Australia and Canada have been impacted, too.
Operation National Sword
When China joined the World Trade Organization, they started taking in the most of the world’s scrap. The shift coincided with a ramping up of global exports, and China sold wares all around the world in shipping containers. Rather than sending these containers back to China empty, it made sense to fill them with heavy bales of recycling. This made the whole cycle more cost-effective, and it became cheaper to send recycling to China than anywhere else. Cities around the world were able to subsidize their recycling program with the money from selling their waste, while also not having to deal with as much of the process — at least until National Sword.
Basically, National Sword was China’s ban on foreign recyclables. It banned four categories and 24 types on imports starting in 2018. And National Sword has steadily expanded, banning more recyclables since then, and it could potentially lead to the banning of all incoming recyclable materials by 2020, but that piece isn’t entirely clear yet. No one is sure exactly why this shift in policy happened, but some experts point to one particular turning point: a documentary film.
Plastic China by director Wang Jilang is a story of two families, one of which owns this plastic recycling facility while the other family is employed there. The main character is the employee’s daughter, who never gets sent to school because she is helping her parents watch her younger siblings and sort through mountains of shredded plastic.
The movie provides a grim look at the actual process of breaking down materials, in an informal recycling facility. It shows the families cutting up plastic, melting, soaking it and turning it into a sludge — then turning it into hardened pellets. The little girl washes her face in the gray plastic-polluted water and eats fish that have choked on bits of plastic. They live and work (and eat and sleep) near a plastic-shredding machine, inhaling dust and microparticles that are byproducts of the process. The whole village is enveloped in plastic detritus.
And much of this garbage was imported from other countries. The girl cuts out shoes from European catalogues and cleans off dirty Mickey Mouse figures to play with. It’s heartbreaking.
Plastic China made the film festival circuit and was even seen in China for a while before the government pulled it from Chinese Internet. Coincidence or causation, National Sword came shortly thereafter. China moved to crack down on informal recycling plants and build newer, better, safer and more efficient recycling systems. Beyond that, the country also shifted focus to recycling internally rather than taking on recyclables from the rest of the world.
Nowhere to Throw
In the US, where there is no national recycling policy, this shift has thrown the recycling industry for a loop. Different cities and states have tried dealing with China’s ban in different ways, including selling to other countries or trying to find domestic markets for various materials. One upside of all of this is a rise in more local recycling infrastructure.
None of these alternatives, though, will really solve the problem — there are just too many things to recycle and a lot of it is just too dirty. Liquids and foods and oils make it harder to recycle things, many of which end up in landfills or incinerators as a result. Some MRFs are investing in better sorting and cleaning machines, but even that won’t be sufficient to tackle this huge and growing waste issue.
Somewhere along the way, key parts of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra got lost. We have lost track of reducing and reusing. Single-use products including straws, bags, cups and bottles are a big part of the problem, as are items made of multiple different materials (particularly ones that are hard to pull back apart, like toothpaste tubes).
Consumers can make a difference by buying less, or buying products that can more easily be reused or recycled, but that’s only part of the equation.
Countries, states and cities need to press producers to design more sustainable products and packaging, and develop more recycling infrastructure. People create pollution and people can stop it, but it has to be done at all levels and steps of the process, starting with better design.
Designers can (and should) visit MRFs and mills, to learn how their products and packaging sorts out (or doesn’t) and breaks down (or doesn’t). They can choose materials that biodegrade or recycle more easily, and design products that break down into recyclable constituent parts.
In the end, Operation National Sword could be a wakeup call. But only if producers, consumers, and governments tune in and listen.