Recycling Relationships in Crisis: USA and China

California is known throughout the nation as a leader in eco-friendly business and recycling practices. However, there is currently dilemma brewing due to the fact that California exports 62 percent of all of its recyclable materials to China. Until recently, China would pay $100 per ton of recyclable material. Now, that number sits at negative $6 per ton, due to China imposing restricting on recyclable material exports, including things like certain kinds of paper and plastics, as well as refusing to accept contaminated materials.

Beginning on May 4 of this year, China has refused to accept any more recyclable materials from the US for the period of a month. A reminder of this impending disaster is the 26 tons of recyclable materials that now sits in front of California's State Capitol. Warehouses at recycling centers are becoming full of recyclables with no place to go. This is due to California's successful diversion of recyclables away from landfills, at least until now. 

Recycling centers are currently looking for new markets for things like electrical wires, shrink wrap, transport crates, plastic trays, and mixed paper. Though there is speculation that other countries in South Asia will look to buy some of these materials, it's predicted that at least some of them will end up in landfills.

So what does this mean for your average recycler? Recycling companies want consumers to keep on recycling, while being more aware of what is supposed to be recycled and what isn't. That way, when new markets emerge for recyclables, there's less chance the supply will be contaminated. Things like plastic forks and spoons that are contaminated with food are not recyclable. Clothing, especially things like shoes, are not recyclable as well. In addition, plastics that come with certain products, including things like shaving razors, clothing, or baby toys, isn't recyclable. Baby diapers are also not recyclable. 

Recently, the National Recycling Coalition has called upon the US to improve its recycling efforts, including utilizing single and dual stream recycling systems to create quality materials at materials recovery facilities. In addition, many recycling companies are looking to the California government to issue a uniform policy regarding what should and shouldn't be recycled. In Alameda County, waste haulers, recyclers, and government officials have formed a task force seeking to resolve some of these issues, rather than let recyclables end up in landfills. 

When China announced its decision to end the import of many types of recyclables, the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries reports that it could result in huge industry losses, considering the industry back 155,000 jobs, as well as generated $5.6 billion in exports. A US official commentated that by differentiating between domestic and foreign waste, that China is not fulfilling its obligations to the World Trade Organization. This policy change has been disruptive towards the global recycling industry as well. In defending the move, China has cited its large population and the need for domestic environmental cleanup, which it feels is hindered by the large amount of recyclable imports coming in to the country.