National Sword

Still from the film 'Plastic China'

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.

Truck loaded with plastic on a highway in Shanghai, image by Paul Louis (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” image by Nadine3103 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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.

Credits

Special Thanks

This episode featured the voices of Kate O’Neill, associate professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley; Cole Rosengren, the senior editor of Waste Dive; Robert Reed, representative of San Francisco Recology; And Matt Wilkins, a biologist and author of More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution in Scientific American.

Special thanks to Zoe Heller, the policy director of Calrecycle, Noah Ullman and Randy Hartman of Keep America Beautiful, Liu Hua of Greenpeace China, and to Hillary Predko for sounding the alarm about this problem by sending us her zine, Atlas of Foreign Garbage.

Comments (27)

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  1. S.F.

    Could you do a story on the one of those waste to energy, clean incinerators? My home town in Japan built one of those a year or so ago, and she no longer has to sort trash like she used to. She still takes clear plastic bottles and glass bottles for recycling bins at markets, but the new incinerator made her life quite a bit easier. How good are they really? I think Europe spearheads with those clean burning incinerators, Japan is one of the biggest users, how good really are they? And why don’t we have them in the US?

  2. David Jung

    I often ponder if the diligence I use to ‘gift wrap’ my recyclables for pick-up is wasted effort. It sounds like, at least in the last year, it is. A deluge of shipping boxes (and I’m not even a prime member), taunts my will to recycle, stuffing the cardboard into ‘single-stream’ recycling bags that tear from their sharp corners. Reduce? It’s hard to do, I reuse plastic forks, but one clamshell package seems to out-waste my effort to save.

    1. ThirteenthLetter

      Have you considered not bothering, then, and using the time you save more productively?

  3. Shivaun

    Hey guys, do you have any details on the name of that French plastic-free toothpaste you mentioned in the episode? I’m curious about looking further into it and my googling hasn’t yielded much. Thanks!

  4. Scot Phelps

    I was under the impression that the hot water used to wash out yoghurt containers used more energy than the value of recycling the container. Is this not true?

    How do we encourage reuse where it is practical? A high end “single use” beverage container can be used everyday for months. Why don’t we have any focus on that?

    Recycling newspaper has been a borderline economic activity for decades.

  5. In Germany, people are explicitly advised NOT to wash their recycling material at home because doing so on an individual household level would waste way more water than doing it at industrial scale at the recycling facility. And as to the effect of incinerators: the city of Munich deploys a giant one to heat 150000 households in the city with hot water. Its emissions are far below the legal limits in every respect and the city buys garbage from all over the place to keep it running 24/7.

  6. Chaz Miller

    Good story. However, Plastic China had little to do with the Chinese government’s action. For well over the last decade, the government has been moving towards limiting imports of recyclables. Small, inefficient, polluting paper mills were closed, as were electronics and plastics processing facilities. The release of Plastic China and the announcement of the ban were merely coincidental. This is a long planned response based on a rising demand by China’s growing middle class for a clean environment.
    The good news for American recyclers? The Chinese are happy to take plastic bottles, etc., that have been processed into pellets or resins. They continue to take old corrugated boxes. Most importantly, 17 North American paper mills, most of them east of the Rockies, are expanding their use of recycled fiber. Markets will rebound, as they have in the past.

  7. Vincent Li

    My dad is Taiwanese so I used to visit the country often when I was younger. Hearing those garbage truck tunes brought back some good memories.

  8. Peter

    Man, my wife and I now are dying to know how to get a French toothpaste dispenser with the cakes.

    Anybody got some links?

  9. Rob Fuller

    I’m a long-time listener and usually a big fan of the show, but I was really disappointed this time. The brief discussion of how better design can reduce waste and make it easier to recycle products is interesting (and would make good episode in itself), but much of the first half of the episode sounded like a promotion for the recycling industry.

    I don’t think you can start from an assumption that more recycling is good without considering all the costs and benefits. Of course the recycling processors would like us to do more sorting and cleaning of products at home, because that reduces their own costs. But to describe washing all of your used packaging at home before putting it in the recycling bin as “right” without considering the costs (both financial and environmental) of using water in that way is really not helpful. Probably a lot of people are doing that with warm water, which takes energy to heat, and some people even put their recyclable products through a dishwasher. That’s not to mention the free labour time that we are giving to the recycling industry by doing all this cleaning and sorting.

    I am not against recycling altogether, and I genuinely don’t know where the balance of costs and benefits lies. But if, as you describe, there is little market for recyclable materials, then that seems like a pretty good indication that there isn’t much value in this whole business.

  10. Mick Kerr

    You mentioned solid toothpaste and an aluminium case for it the episode. Can you send a link to where you got it from? I reckon the could be a good market for that in Australia!

  11. Chaz Miller

    A well written article. However, Plastic China has nothing to do with the ban. The government has been planning this for over a decade. China has a growing middle class that demands a clean environment. The government needs to meet this demand. Smaller, polluting paper mills along with plastics processors have been shut down. Rules on imports were tightened (the Green Fence in 2013 then National Sword in 2017). At the same time, old corrugated (cardboard) boxes from commercial accounts continue to flow into China as do resin and pellets made from recycling plastic.

  12. Pablo Valdivia

    I worked in the design of public space in Taipei and noticed that there were no requirements for trash cans from the client nor the city. Local architects explained to me that public trash bins were removed from public space because people would throw their garbage in public bins in order to avoid paying their garbage taxes. It seemed contradictory to have a clean city without public trash disposal system, but it works!

  13. Michael Birtwistle

    I thought I was doing a good job until I listened to this.

    But I guess like any environmentally conscious person, you always think you can do more.

    I’ve now sourced a glass jar of natural toothpaste 😬

  14. Ann Androsky

    Penn and Teller addressed this in their TV show back in 2004! I saw this back in college and have been trying to reduce and reuse more ever since! ( Here is a link to the full episode; but I believe if you have a showtime subscription- you can also watch it there https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6klo0p )

  15. Stan

    There’s a new shopping precinct popping up near where we live. The Other three are about half to two thirds occupied. I pointed it out to my nine year old daughter “War on War on Waste” I said to her. She thought about it for a bit, and replied, “Instead of reduce, reuse, recycle, it’s buy more, use it once, and throw it away”. These school kids that are striking because world leaders are doing nothing; we could put them in charge, and I would sleep much easier.

  16. Elena

    What brand is the French toothpaste in a tin? That sounds like a sensible product. (I also live in Europe).

  17. Yash Gupta

    I see I wasn’t the only one looking for toothpaste tube alternatives in the US. I remember tooth powder tins from India, and they are now available in the US on Amazon and probably also your local Indian grocery store. The American tooth powder products in glass jars can end up being 4 times as expensive as the Colgate tooth powder. Then there are also brands like Lush that sell tooth tablets. And while looking for this French tooth-cake in an aluminum case, I also discovered several other tooth suds, tooth soap chips, etc.

  18. Lauren

    I’d like to echo the request to know the French tooth powder brand – I’d at least like to see the packaging! Thanks!

  19. National Sword

    I listened to and enjoyed this episode but I was concerned that the story did not note the different recycling paths of different materials, specifically aluminum, newsprint, cardboard and glass. The story seemed to lump everything, including plastic, as ‘recycling’, which is the way most people experience the trash & recycling process but the processing of these other materials would likely be much different than plastic.

    What put this in mind is Ms. Mingle’s comment near the end where she says she wanted to “throw my soda can in the trash and say to people, wake up, recycling isn’t real”, or something like that. My thought was, wait a minute, recycling aluminum is an entirely different ballgame than plastic. And there are requirements on companies to recycle cardboard. Those are very different than the plastic story. A quick Google search turned up an article that said recycling aluminum takes 98%-less energy than processing virgin aluminum. And Coors, Miller and AB note how much they recycle their cans.

    Also I recall learning about McDonalds and their recycling journey, specifically the trouble with styrofoam clamshell packaging. As I remember it, when they replaced the foam box for a cardboard box they had to do a redesign of their process because the cardboard did different things than the foam in terms of heat and moisture. But the really interesting thing came at the end when they analysed the results of the swap and realized that it didn’t make much of a dent because the bulk of their trash was actually cardboard boxes used to transport the ingredients. Then they started a campaign to recycle all that cardboard and achieved significant improvements in diverting recycleable materials from the trash.

    I am just a guy who sells lighting products, including recycling boxes for fluorescent tubes, and I thought this was an opportunity missed to tell the story of the separate paths of the waste stream.

    Thanks for your show. I am a longtime listener.
    /Rick in Raleigh

  20. Bryan

    How can I tell if my city is actually recycling or just throwing it out with the trash? I live in Baltimore.

    1. 99pi

      Hi Bryan, you should be able to check directly with your local area recycling center.

  21. Regarding the toothpaste, I did some research I think y’all may be interested in. When looking for these things, you should absolutely keep in mind that not all toothpaste is created equal. You need to pay attention to what ingredients they include because some of them have materials that are too abrasive for use on teeth and can damage instead of prevent damage.

    In America, there are a bunch of options for non-pastey (ie. plastic-free) toothpaste, but I have yet to find any options that contain fluoride. So if you’re okay with not having it, there are a bunch of options States-side. I suspect a reason none of these have fluoride is because by adding fluoride to toothpaste it takes it from ‘cosmetic’ (and not needing FDA approval) to a ‘cosmetic/drug’ (and requiring approval). Approval requires lab and human safety tests, increasing the cost to even get to market in the first place. A ‘drug’ is something that is used to treat or prevent some kind of health condition and because it’s commonly understood by consumers and the industry that fluoride is used to treat/prevent teeth, it’s automatically in the ‘drug’ category. I did email the makers of “Bite toothpaste bits” (https://bitetoothpastebits.com) and they said they are working on a fluoride option, so if you want to stay local to the States, you could start by getting their non-fluoride option and rinsing with a fluoride-containing (non-alcohol) mouthwash (yeah, that means plastic, still…) until they come out with the fluoride ones.

    If, however, you do want to fortify your teeth with fluorapatite (which is harder to dissolve in acid than the natural tooth version, hydroxyapatite) OR you’re in the EU or New Zealand, I have found two options.

    The first is “DentTabs”, from Germany. They offer both fluoride and non-fluoride versions and you can get directly from them if you’re in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland OR several suppliers throughout the EU and a few other countries. http://www.denttabs.de/jetzt-kaufen If you can get a hold of them, they offer a 13-ish year supply (10K tabs) for 360eur. And if you’re in Germany, you should absolutely ship those to me in the US. I can’t get my hands on them at the moment. :(

    The second is “Eco Easy”, from New Zealand. https://ecoeasy.co.nz/collections/our-products/products/toothpaste-tabs?variant=18219217485897 Pretty much the same ingredients as DentTabs, but much smaller quantity options. Also no shipping outside of New Zealand. :(

  22. Ryan Scott

    We need legislation. Individuals cannot ever, ever in a million years solve this problem. We need to vote and get legislation to force companies to stop using plastic.

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