Last updated on March 6, 2022.
Most of us drop our recycling into a blue bin, believing we are doing the right thing, and move on. This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ point of view is because most of us are so busy that we don’t have time to think about it. But where does our recycling actually go?
If you’ll recall from my article “How Our Recycling Systems Work,” just because recycling is accepted or collected does not automatically mean that it is recycled. If you read my article on why recycling is not the answer, then you also know that our volume of waste, even when recyclable, is out of control. We send most of our recycling away, out of our country, and into the landscapes and lives of people in other countries. Those countries pay workers very low wages to sort recycling and it exposes them to toxic conditions in the process.
“While recycling and the circular economy have been touted as potential solutions, upward of half of the plastic waste intended for recycling has been exported to hundreds of countries around the world.”1
How Recycling Grew
While municipal recycling in the U.S. began in the 1970s as a response to quickly filling landfills, it really took off in the 1990s. Back then, recycling services were inexpensive because recyclers could easily profit from the materials. The U.S. sought to increase the recycling of municipal solid waste to avoid landfilling and incineration. Often referred to as landfill diversion, it has become increasingly important as our volumes of waste exponentially increased over the last two decades. The types of plastics accepted in municipal systems grew from just PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs to include other types of plastics as cities and states emphasized landfill diversion.
In addition, companies and corporations used ‘recycling’ as a way to increase their sales. Recycling makes it ok to use disposables. Companies branded more of their products as environmentally redeemable, which made consumers feel better about their purchases.2 In effect, this normalized buying increased amounts of packaging, plastic, and disposables.
Marketing campaigns for plastic started with organizations like the American Chemistry Council working to protect the interests of wealthy stockholders. They launched campaigns touting the recyclability of all plastics, and “many local governments took the bait, or were pressured to fall in line.”3 Further, since plastics are made from petroleum and chemicals, the petroleum industry strongly backs organizations like the American Chemistry Council. There is a lot of money behind all the plastics in our daily lives.
“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.”4
U.S. Exportation of Recycling
As the volumes of recycling increased, the U.S. began reducing domestic recycling. We began exporting our waste to China because of cheaper labor and equipment costs. At the time, China’s economic growth and its demand for our materials were strong.5 “Shipping recyclables from the U.S. to China made economic sense due in large part to the trade deficit,” wrote attorney and sustainability expert, Jennie Romer. The U.S. buys more from China than China does from the U.S. Instead of returning empty shipping containers, the U.S. began shipping recyclables at a discount.
“Due to low cost shipping and labor, the U.S. became reliant on China to accept plastic materials collected by U.S. municipal systems.“6
China Becomes the World’s Dumping Ground
China handled almost half of the world’s recyclables for about 25 years. They have imported about half of the world’s plastic waste since 1992.7 Recyclables were one of the largest categories of exported materials to China between 2007 and 2016. By 2016, the U.S. transported about 1,500 shipping containers full of recyclables across the ocean to China every day.8
Their plastic scrap import business grew from a grassroots effort among poor villagers seeking to make livelihoods. “According to one estimate, roughly sixty thousand small family farms were converted into family-run plastics-recycling facilities.”9 This recycling economy grew correspondingly as our volumes of waste increased exponentially.
The U.S. was exporting 77.9% of its plastic waste by 2016. Japan exported 87.6%. Seven European countries (Germany, the U.K. Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands) exported 57.5%.10 Up to 70% of Australia’s plastic waste was going to China. Can you imagine how much plastic that is?
“For other countries, China represented a convenient dumping ground for mixed waste. For China, accepting the world’s castoffs became too big a burden.” -Randy Miller, Miller Recycling Corporation11
Operation Green Fence
In addition to the insane volumes, the recycling China received was severely contaminated. Contamination refers to recyclables that are mixed with trash, food waste, and other non-recyclables. The quality of the recyclables started to decrease. Chinese manufacturers incurred large expenses to sort out and dispose of the non-recyclables in Chinese landfills.12 Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.13
The Chinese government passed the Green Fence policy (aka Operation Green Fence) in 2011 and implemented it in 2013. It was a direct response to the volume and contamination problems. It authorized an aggressive inspection effort and the goal was to limit the number of contaminated recyclables and waste that was flowing into China.14 Another goal was reducing illegal foreign smuggling.15
The policy lowered the contamination rate to 1.5%. That means that 98.5% of the contents of recycling bales had to be free of food waste, trash, non-recyclables, and other debris. This was a strict rate and difficult for Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) to manage through single-stream recycling systems.
In the policy’s first year, “almost 70 percent of all incoming containers loaded with recyclables were subjected to thorough inspections.” Recyclers and shippers both faced risks if caught shipping substandard materials. Shippers could have their licenses revoked; recyclers could face the costs of paying for the return of containers full of non-recyclable materials. Almost 22,000 large containers were unqualified and rejected.16 Rightfully so, China did not want to receive garbage from other countries. Though the Green Fence policy was temporary, it began to set off changes in the global trade of recycling waste, especially plastic.
Operation Green Fence “highlighted the fragility of global dependence on a single importer.”17
Too Much Plastic…And Trash
Despite the effects of the Green Fence policy, exports to China continued. While the policy reduced the contamination rate to 1.5%, plastic production, and thus plastic waste, steadily increased. “In 2016 alone, about half of all plastic waste intended for recycling (14.1 million [metric tons]) was exported by 123 countries, with China taking most of it (7.35 million [metric tons]) from 43 different countries.”18 The map below illustrates the countries with the largest exports of plastics to China, showing the U.S. as one of the highest.
“There’s simply too much plastic for us to recycle away the problem.” -Greenpeace19
The National Sword Policy
Enacted in 2018, this policy banned “24 kinds of solid wastes, including plastics waste from living sources, vanadium slag, unsorted waste paper and waste textile materials.”20 China passed this even stricter policy in order to reduce pollution from low-value recycling, protect its people, and also reduce the smuggling of illegal goods.21 The ban included certain low-value plastics and mandated a 0.5% contamination rate, which is so strict that it almost functions as a ban on most recycling and almost all plastics.
“Before the policy was implemented, China would import huge quantities of waste from other countries, including the U.S. The country had fairly low standards for what it would accept, so recyclable waste would often be mixed with trash and contaminated items such as plastic containers with food debris. China’s processing facilities would then have to manage all that unusable waste.“22
The Human Cost
At the plastic scrap businesses, farmers and low-wage workers picked through low-value bales of scrap plastic for the best materials. They processed the best plastics, #1 and #2’s, into recycled plastic nurdles.23 China used to accept most of the #3, 4, 5, and 7 plastics. But most of these plastics were burned for fuel in people’s backyards or dumped in nearby waterways.24 The workers often even lived among the plastic scrap.
Plastics are made of chemicals and petroleum. Plastic in water breaks down into small particles and releases toxins. When humans drink or bathe with that water, they are ingesting or exposing their skin to those chemicals. Plastic releases those chemicals into the air when heated or burned. Using China as a dumping ground affected the lives and health of thousands of people, who were simply trying to earn enough to support their families.
The Film, Plastic China
One impetus for the National Sword policy likely came from the 2014 documentary Plastic China.25 The film exposed the environmental and social harms caused by imported plastic waste. It showed the families living and working around toxic plastic materials, even a child washing her face in the wastewater. “Some waste experts believe that the documentary was a motivation for China’s strict National Sword regulations to end China’s unofficial role as the world’s ‘dumping ground’ for waste.”26. Here’s the trailer, which will give an idea of how bad things were:
It is a powerful exposé. As an article from 99% Invisible noted: “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.”27
But China still had to deal with the waste it had already accumulated. Unfortunately, a lot of it wasn’t recycled. “Since the documentary ‘Plastic China’ debuted in China in 2014, more than 60 investigations and articles have shown that millions of tons of exported plastic wastes have been dumped or burned rather than recycled.”28
National Sword Exposed a Broken System
The waste management system in the U.S. was broken before the policy was passed, but it wasn’t apparent. “The National Sword has exposed the fallacy and flaws of the international flow of plastic waste exports as a responsible method of recycling plastic and creating a so-called ‘circular economy’ of plastics.”29
Unfortunately, a circular economy for plastics was never a real thing. Secondary markets for recycled plastic were limited, at best.30 Since virgin plastic often costs less than recycled plastic, there has always been little market demand for it. Worse, plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it is no longer usable. It was never endlessly recyclable.
After National Sword, the recycling market for low-value plastics disappeared almost overnight. With no one to buy the recycling bales, some U.S. recycling facilities began paying for incineration or landfill costs. As Sandra Ann Harris wrote, “The world is unequipped to handle the onslaught of waste that would normally have been shipped to China for recycling. Private and municipal recycling programs that depended on [the] sale of discarded plastics to China have resorted to burying and burning the waste, with serious carbon emissions consequences. Others have gone out of business.”31
China strictly enforced the 0.5% contamination rate through regular inspections and by limiting the number of U.S. companies authorized to transport recycling to China. “Bales that do not meet inspection are either redirected to different end-markets in Southeast Asia or sent back to U.S. ports and placed in landfills, both of which are extremely expensive and consume considerable amounts of fossil fuels.”32
The types of recyclables that Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in the U.S. accepted drastically changed. In some cases, MRFs have to pay to get rid of recycling rather than earn from it. So the demand for plastics is almost non-existent and the value is now negative. These markets are not likely to ever come back unless we make huge, sweeping changes to our entire system. It will become economically challenging to keep recycling facilities operational. Recycling can be part of the solution only if it is economical. Most major companies aren’t going to alter their bottom line just because it’s the right thing to do.
“Spawning the Recycling Crisis”
Some say that the National Sword policy ‘spawned the recycling crisis.’ While it’s true that we suddenly did not have anywhere to send our millions of tons of waste, the problems stemmed from our own creation. We have been producing millions of tons of waste for decades with exponential increases each year. Our corporations had the power to turn off the tap of single-use disposable items and we had the buying power to demand change. So China’s new policy didn’t ‘spawn the recycling crisis,’ it just exposed it. We had been using China as our dumping ground for years, and China became polluted from collecting the western world’s trash.
“While many commentators have blamed East Asian import restrictions for our current struggles, the U.S. is at fault for becoming dependent on exporting its recyclables. The United States failed to curb the rise of plastic, failed to build domestic demand for recycled material, and failed to ensure that product designers considered the end life of their products.” -The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund33
What Happens to Recyclable Items Now?
The long-term effects of National Sword will continue to be studied, likely for years. Scientists estimated that “111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced with the new Chinese policy by 2030.”34 But where does will it all go?
In the U.S., we have had to landfill or incinerate a lot of recycling. Some recycling programs have shut down altogether. Others are burning recyclables in an incinerator or sending all of them to landfills.35 Worse, we have also started sending it to other countries, places that don’t necessarily have waste management infrastructure. Instead of China, are we now putting human health at risk in those other countries?
In Part 2, I’ll explore how our waste and recycling are affecting people in other parts of the world. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Article, “Why U.S. Cities Are Ending Single-Stream Recycling,” by Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc., July 8, 2021.