Have you noticed a change in recycling in your community? Our local center recently changed what they accept. They no longer receive paper, catalogs, magazines, cardboard that is not corrugated, and tin cans. Plus, you can no longer just dump aluminum cans into a bin as a donation. You must wait in line and cash them in. Furthermore, recycled materials have to be super clean.
Most of our recycling is shipped overseas to China. The country accepts recycling of “about half of the globe’s plastics and paper products”. 1 On January 1, 2018, China banned the import of certain plastics and paper meant for recycling, and much of this material has ended up in landfills or Malaysia. 2.
“With these Southeast Asian countries moving to impose import restrictions and plastic scrap piling up from California to Florida, the U.S. recycling industry is talking about a mounting crisis in the country,” the Unearthed report says.
The researchers found that plastic waste exports in the U.S. dropped by almost a third, from 949,789 metric tons in 2017 to 666,760 metric tons in 2018. That means about 280,000 metric tons of plastic is no longer being exported by the U.S., and has not been accounted for, Greenpeace said…
By 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of single-use drink bottles, food containers and other plastic junk will be displaced around the globe due to China’s ban on other countries’ trash, according to a paper from University of Georgia researchers. 3
Trump mistakenly blames China for a significant portion of plastic pollution in our oceans without recognizing the origin of a significant portion of that plastic is the US. 4
Whether or not this decision was a direct result of Trump administration trade threats is hard to determine. China states the ban is an effort to work on their own garbage problems and not be the world’s dumping ground.
The decision not to overturn the ban, as requested by many countries, is a direct result of Trump’s trade threats and policies. Sputnik International explains what happened at the March 2018 World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting:
The new trade war announced by US President Donald Trump is seeing some immediate and effective blowback in the form of a refusal by Beijing to lift its ban on the import of foreign garbage.
China has long been the world’s largest importer of waste and recyclable commodities. Now that Trump has threatened harsh new tarrifs in an escalating trade war, Beijing has announced that it will not overturn a new ban on accepting shipments of garbage from the US and other countries, leaving industrialized nations scrambling for options on how to dispose of an ever-mounting landscape of trash.
As China in 2016 was responsible for accepting some 80 percent of US recyclable waste, the move has business and legislators pleading with Beijing to roll back new restrictions on waste imports.
A Washington representative told a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting on Friday that China’s ban on scrap imports was “disruptive’ and hinted that Beijing would be to blame for rapidly escalating landfill in the US and the rest of the world…
The accusations took an ironic turn in light of the new Trump trade war directed, in part, at Beijing, as the US representative to the WTO declared that China was implementing an unnecessarily strict trade policy, according to Reuters…
But Beijing refuted US assertions of China’s responsibility as the world’s garbage collector.
A spokesperson for the newly-empowered administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping noted that nations must individually shoulder the responsibility to dispose of their own waste in an environmentally-acceptable manner, and that Beijing, in refusing to buy the world’s recyclables, was simply moving to clean up its own regions. 5
In the same month, Trump announced $60 billion tariffs against China. 6
There are other changes to US recycling that are a direct result of the Trump administration’s tariffs. As a result, much of what we put in our recycling bins or take to the recycling center is simply ending up in landfills. The New York Times reports:
Western states, which have relied the most on Chinese recycling plants, have been hit especially hard. In some areas — like Eugene, Ore., and parts of Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii — local officials and garbage haulers will no longer accept certain items for recycling, in some cases refusing most plastics, glass and certain types of paper. Instead, they say, customers should throw these items in the trash…
Other communities, like Grants Pass, Ore., home to about 37,000 people, are continuing to encourage their residents to recycle as usual, but the materials are winding up in landfills anyway. 7
On August 23, 2018, a new round of tariffs was announced by both the US and China. Once again, recycling was affected. China announced a 25% tariff on old corrugated cardboard and other materials like scrap plastic. According to Recycling Resource:
The action also covers all scrap plastics sent from the U.S. to China, as well as a number of scrap metals.
The tariffs, which cover a wide variety of product categories in addition to recyclables, cover about $16 billion in imports from the U.S. They are scheduled to take effect Aug. 23, the same day the U.S. plans to enact tariffs on $16 billion in imports from China.
Both countries previously enacted tariffs covering $34 billion in imports from the other country.
China’s latest announcement comes one day after the U.S. Trade Representative’s office finalized its $16 billion list, which will bring the current U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports up to covering $50 billion in import value.
Although previous tariffs have affected the recycling industry through steel and aluminum pricing and availability, or by their impact on recycling equipment, the new proposal from China marks the first instance of recovered paper and plastic being targeted directly.
The move threatens to further disrupt the North American recycling market, which has been rocked this year by separate Chinese import restrictions on recovered materials. It could also benefit recycling programs and companies outside the U.S., as their exports will not be subject to the tariffs. 8
It may have taken months for all of these tariffs to affect our local recycling center, but the changes reflect our need to reduce waste culturally rather than rely on recycling to ease our eco-guilt. Recycling is not the answer. Reduction is.
It’s pretty insane to think how much of our recycling goes overseas. How could this be sustainable considering the footprint of global shipping?
Perhaps Trump’s tariffs and the response from China will benefit us in the long run if as a nation we shift from the thinking that recycling makes all the overpackaging and consumerism all right. Unfortunately, I doubt it will.
It’s up to individuals to make choices, to avoid stores that overpackage like Trader Joes, and reuse as much as possible before attempting to recycle or put in the landfill.
Image: RitaE / Pixabay