The End of Recycling as We Know It

Aamir Jamil, Author

Since early 2018, China has banned 24 types of trash and has slowly been increasing. This is a change because China had imported 45% of the world’s plastic waste since 1992 and now, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced because of China’s new law that will take effect by 2030.

So much of the world’s recycling is diverting, ending up in Southeast Asia now including nations like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. They have picked up some of what China is leaving behind, but they don’t have as well-developed waste systems and lack proper infrastructure (like ports) to replace what China was doing. Recently, Vietnam was taking used items, but at one point needed to stop taking in trash to process everything. At the moment, no country can really replace what China was doing. 

This is an acute problem for America and also Millburn. Before, 81% of the 250 million tons of American trash exports were shipped to Asia. China was taking in half of the world’s trash before the ban and  was importing almost 9 million metric tons of plastic a year, according to Greenpeace. The country started importing recyclable waste in the 1980s to fuel a growing manufacturing business. It grew a whole waste processing and recycling industry, but improper handling of trash and a lack of supervision made China a major polluter.

China has been worried about the environmental impact of all the trash. China, now the second-largest economy in the world, has been increasing efforts to clean up its air, water and land. Under President Xi Jinping, the country has closed thousands of factories that contributed pollution and wants a greater use of renewable energy.

American recycling now costs a lot more to ship to China as a result and the effects are trickling down. In New Hampshire, a town could sell its recycling it for $6 a ton. Now, the recycling plant is charging the town $125 a ton to recycle, or $68 a ton to incinerate. Some towns have been forced to stop using recycling trucks that pick up recycling from bins on the streets. A spokesperson for Philadelphia said it is “virtually impossible to meet the stringent contamination standards established in China,” and also said that recycling had a “major impact on the city’s budget,” at $78 a ton to recycle.

Another problem is that each plastic has to be sorted by weight, color, shape, and size. Aluminum cans can be recycled again and again, but plastics and glass are more complicated. It takes a lot of money to sort all the recycling and China could sort the recycling with cheap labor but in the United States, it costs a lot of more to sort the plastic. Instead, the United States was taking much of the plastic and shipping to China before being sorted.

The loss of China as a place to store recycling means that plastic, paper, and glass given for recycling by Americans are being sent to American landfills or are burned in incinerators. This risks an increase of toxic air pollution that threaten communities who live near heavy industry and incineration or landfills, which are historically poorer communities already facing a myriad of challenges. Many of the incinerators in the United States are older and do not have newer pollution controls. Also, many of the incinerators are designed for garbage, not recycling, which can affect the output of the fire. The burning of trash is releasing fumes that are causing an increase in people with cancer and asthma. 

If you are wondering what happens to our own recycling at the middle school, it is collected and co-mingled with trash. Apparently the recycling is sorted at a nearby waste center.

While most people still think our recycling is eco-friendly, now that might not be an assertive answer. If you like, watch this recent VICE Weekly clip on how China’s ban is affecting us here in the U.S.