The World's Recycling Is in Chaos. Here's What Has to Happen


This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It has been a year since China jammed the works of recycling programs around the world by essentially shutting down what had been the industry’s biggest market. China’s National Sword policy, enacted in January 2018, banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling processors, which had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century. The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem—and this one not of its own making.

In the year since, China’s plastic imports have plummeted by 99 percent, leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed. While the glut of plastics is the main concern, China’s imports of mixed paper have also dropped by a third. Recycled aluminum and glass are less affected by the ban.

Globally, more plastics are now ending up in landfills, incinerators, or likely littering the environment as rising costs to haul away recyclable materials increasingly render the practice unprofitable. In England, more than half a million more tons of plastics and other household garbage were burned last year. Australia’s recycling industry is facing a crisis as the country struggles to handle the 1.3 million-ton stockpile of recyclable waste it had previously shipped to China.

Across the United States, local governments and recycling processors are scrambling to find new markets. Communities from Douglas County, Oregon, to Hancock, Maine, have curtailed collections or halted their recycling programs entirely, which means that many residents are simply tossing plastic and paper into the trash. Some places, like Minneapolis, have stopped accepting black plastics and rigid No. 6 plastics like disposable cups. Others, like Philadelphia, are now burning the bulk of their recyclables at a waste-to-energy plant, raising concerns about air pollution.

Even before China’s ban, only 9 percent of discarded plastic was being recycled, while 12 percent was burned. The rest was buried in landfills or simply dumped and left to wash into rivers and oceans. Without China to process plastic bottles, packaging, and food containers—not to mention industrial and other plastic waste—the already massive waste problem posed by our throwaway culture will be exacerbated, experts say. The planet’s load of nearly indestructible plastics—more than 8 billion tons have been produced worldwide over the past six decades—continues to grow.

“Already, we’ve been seeing evidence in the past year of the accumulation of plastic waste in countries that are dependent on exporting,” says the University of Georgia’s Amy Brooks, a PhD student in engineering and lead author of a recent study on the impact of China’s import ban. “We’ve seen increased cost to consumers, closure of recycling facilities, and ultimately decreased plastic waste diversion.”

The recycling crisis triggered by China’s ban could have an upside, experts say, if it leads to better solutions for managing the world’s waste, such as expanding processing capacities in North America and Europe, and spurring manufacturers to make their products more easily recyclable. Above all, experts say it should be a wake-up call to the world on the need to sharply cut down on single-use plastics.

Scrap metal at a dock in Liverpool, England, waiting to be exported.

Over the coming decade, as many as 111 million tons of plastics will have to find a new place to be processed or otherwise disposed of as a result of China’s ban, according to Brooks and University of Georgia engineering professor Jenna Jambeck. However, the places trying to take up some of the slack in 2018 tended to be lower-income countries, primarily in Southeast Asia, many of which lack the infrastructure to properly handle recyclables. Many of those countries were quickly overwhelmed by the volume and have also now cut back on imports.

Prior to China’s ban, 95 percent of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union and 70 percent in the US were sold and shipped to Chinese processors. There, they were turned into forms to be repurposed by plastic manufacturers. Favorable rates for shipping in cargo vessels that carried Chinese consumer goods abroad and would otherwise return to China empty, coupled with the country’s low labor costs and high demand for recycled materials, made the practice profitable.

“Everyone was sending their materials to China because their contamination standard was low and their pricing was very competitive,” says Johnny Duong, acting chief operating officer of California Waste Solutions, which handles recycling for Oakland and San Jose. Like most municipal recycling programs, those cities contract with Duong’s company to collect and sort recyclable waste at its materials recovery facility, where they are baled and sent to end-market processors. Before the ban, Duong says, his company sold around 70 percent of its recyclables to China. Now that has fallen to near zero.

China’s action came after many recycling programs had transitioned from requiring consumers to separate paper, plastics, cans, and bottles to today’s more common “single stream,” where it all goes into the same blue bin. As a result, contamination from food and waste has risen, leaving significant amounts unusable. In addition, plastic packaging has become increasingly complex, with colors, additives, and multilayer, mixed compositions making it ever more difficult to recycle. China has now cut off imports of all but the cleanest and highest-grade materials — imposing a 99.5 percent purity standard that most exporters find all but impossible to meet.

“All recyclable plastics from municipal recycling programs have been pretty much banned,” says Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the US trade group National Waste and Recycling Association. “It’s had a tremendous impact. Costs associated with recycling are up, revenue associated with recycling is down. And that’s not turning around in the next few weeks.”

The US and Europe, where many cities have long-standing recycling collection programs, have been especially hard hit. Decades of reliance on China had stifled development of domestic markets and infrastructure. “There are just not very easy or cost-effective options for dealing with it now,” says Brooks. “So if nothing is done to ensure efficient management of plastic waste, the cost-effective option is to send it to landfills or incineration.”

In the US, small town and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest. While most continue to operate, rising costs and falling incomes are forcing some, like the one in Kingsport, Tennessee, to shut down. Others, as in Phenix City, Alabama, have stopped accepting all plastics, while places like Deltona, Florida, have suspended curbside pickup. Residents in municipalities like these now must travel to collection points, sometimes in distant locations, if they want to recycle. Inevitably, some people just toss their recyclables in the trash instead.

Most larger cities—such as New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon—have been able to either find alternative markets or improve and expand their municipal operations to process higher-quality and more marketable materials. But many have had to make changes, including dropping some harder-to-recycle materials from their programs. Sacramento, California, for instance, halted collection of plastics labeled No. 4 through 7 for several months last year at the city waste operator’s request. Residents were told to discard those items in their household garbage.

Workers sort recycling material at a waste management facility in Elkridge, Maryland.

“That was a real eye opener for a lot of folks who love to feel good about putting their recycling in their blue bin and then it magically turns into something else,” says Erin Treadwell, community outreach manager for Sacramento Public Works. “We wish it was that easy.” Collection there resumed in November after a public education campaign on how households should clean and sort their recyclables.

In Philadelphia last year, when the city’s waste contractor demanded higher fees for collecting and processing recycled materials, the city sent half its recyclables to a waste-to-energy plant, where they were burned to generate electricity; the rest went to an interim contractor.

Incineration is on the rise in parts of Europe, as well. In England, nearly 11 million tons of waste were burned at waste-to-energy plants last year, up 665,000 tons from the previous fiscal year. The facilities are designed to contain emissions, and the practice has sparked strong reactions both for and against among environmentalists and scientists. However, a recent study by the nonprofit Zero Waste Europe found that even state-of-the-art incinerators can emit dioxins and other harmful pollutants.

European nations that had exported most of their recyclables to China have faced growing piles of low-quality plastic scrap, causing “a congestion of the whole system,” says Chaim Waibel, adviser for the industry association Plastics Recyclers Europe. The displaced European plastic was mostly diverted to Indonesia, Turkey, India, Malaysia, and Vietnam, Waibel says.

Simon Ellin, CEO of the Recycling Association, a UK industry group, said these countries have struggled to cope with the volume displaced by the Chinese ban and were beginning to impose their own import restrictions.

Whether China’s ban leads to increased plastic pollution in the environment remains to be seen. “The plastic is now getting diverted to countries with a high risk of improper management and high leakage rates,” says Roland Geyer, an industrial ecology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and lead author of a recent study on the ultimate fate of disposed plastics. Still, China, with its high volume of imports, had been the source of more than a quarter of the world’s mismanaged waste, Jambeck says. So if proper alternatives are found, plastic pollution could actually decrease.

Some options are beginning to emerge. Several US materials recovery facilities are expanding operations, upgrading equipment, and adding workers to improve sorting and reduce contamination so that the materials are acceptable to more discerning buyers. Duong’s Oakland-based company—which handles paper, plastics, and some metals—has modified its equipment and devised better ways of separating materials. The company has developed new markets domestically and in places like South Korea, Indonesia, and India.

And displaced Chinese processors have announced plans to open new US processing plants in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and Huntsville, Alabama. The companies will shred or pelletize things like plastic food containers to make products such as artificial plants and hangers.

A worker sorts through plastic bottles at a waste facility in Vietnam.

“There is the expectation that we’ll be able to expand domestic processing,” says Germain. “That’s the good news. [But] you don’t build a new facility overnight.”

A variety of new policies aimed at reducing plastic waste are also in the works. The European Parliament recently approved a ban on single-use plastics, including plastic cutlery, straws, and drink-stirrers. Several North American cities, including Seattle and Vancouver, and companies like Starbucks and American Airlines have taken similar actions. And many places around the world now restrict plastic shopping bags.

“Reducing the amount of waste we generate in the first place is the most important thing we can do,” says Lance Klug, information officer for California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. The agency has been working with manufacturers for the past decade to reduce the discarded packaging that makes up about a quarter of what’s in the state’s landfills, he says, adding, “We’re trying to get industry more involved in the end-of-life disposition of their products.”

Britain is planning to tax manufacturers of plastic packaging with less than 30 percent recycled materials. And Norway recently adopted a system in which makers of single-use plastic bottles pay an “environmental levy” that declines as the return rate for their products rises. The bottles must be designed for easy recycling, with no toxic additives, only clear or blue color, and water-soluble labels.

One year on, China’s National Sword policy is proving to be double-edged—both sparking chaos and drawing overdue attention to the way the world deals with its waste.

“The collect-sort-export model, with some domestic manufacturing, worked for us for a long time when markets for recycled materials were good, particularly in China,” says Klug. “But that’s no longer the case, and it’s probably never going to be the case again.”

More Great WIRED Stories