Sustainability Infrastructure

How China transformed U.S. recycling

a photo of workers sorting recyclables at a recycling facility

Story at a glance

  • In early 2018, China banned many scrap materials and decided not to accept others unless they meet an extremely low contamination rate of 0.5 percent.
  • Contamination rates of U.S. recyclables before sorting vary, but reach 25 percent or higher in many parts of the country.
  • Although China’s import restrictions decreased the revenues that support American recycling, the flaws in the U.S.’s recycling system run deeper. For example, the U.S. failed to cultivate enough domestic markets for recyclables, but that’s starting to change.

America’s recycling woes have been blamed on China’s decision in early 2018 to ban many scrap materials and not accept others unless they meet an extremely low contamination rate. But you have to look at the flaws in the system of American recycling to understand why China’s policy change impacted U.S. recycling so heavily. 

If you haven’t been following the changes in the recycling market, here’s a recap: Following China’s import policy change in 2018, materials from the U.S., U.K. and Australia flooded ports in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, which then began to enact their own restrictions on waste imports

These decisions led municipal recycling programs, in hundreds of U.S. cities, to close down or stop accepting certain materials. But the policy changes laid bare the need for a larger domestic market for recyclables. The fallout also revealed the extent to which most Americans weren’t educated on how recycling works — and the process that comes after they throw their materials in a bin. 

After collecting recyclables, municipalities have to pay for sorting and processing before those materials can be brought to market. Even when municipalities generated enough revenues to cover costs, the whole system in much of the U.S. was dependent on getting those revenues. That’s one of the reasons why American recycling was so vulnerable to market changes.

Even though import restrictions (especially in China) decreased the revenues that support American recycling and made it much harder to sell certain materials at all, the flaws in the U.S.’s recycling system run deeper. The U.S. is “at fault for becoming dependent on exporting its recyclables,” as a new report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund puts it.

As the report notes, “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.”

“It’s tough love but it’s needed”

So why would recycling be set up this way? When municipalities started encouraging people to recycle several decades ago, they were designed with low barriers to entry since most Americans weren’t accustomed to recycling their waste. 

“From the very beginning, recycling programs in the U.S. created this falsehood that it was almost free to the consumer,” says Richard Coupland, vice president at the solid waste collection company Republic Services.

When I wrote about how American recycling is changing following China’s new policy back in April, I highlighted Montgomery County, Maryland’s recycling center, which continued to generate revenues from all the materials it was collecting for recycling (except mixed-color, broken glass, which has little value). Montgomery County though was selling the majority of its recyclables domestically.

“China said no, and that’s really the right answer,” says Keefe Harrison, CEO of a national nonprofit called The Recycling Partnership. “The shift from China really shined the light on our bad practices for waste [in the U.S.] What is the cost of pivoting from a linear economy to a circular one? It’s tough love but it’s needed.”

New models

In addition to providing monetary grants to towns and municipalities to kickstart or improve their recycling programs, The Recycling Partnership has been working with companies to ensure their sustainability pledges are upheld. The organization recognizes that companies are more likely to fulfill commitments when they receive sufficient expertise from partners and are held accountable.

“What you can do is make sure that when companies are making sustainability pledges,” says Harrison, “they’re backing them up with the appropriate amount of money and action that it takes to get their goal done.”

For example, in late October, the Coca-Cola Company, Keurig Dr Pepper and PepsiCo announced a partnership with World Wildlife Fund, The Recycling Partnership and Closed Loop Partners for a program that will make sure plastic bottles are “recovered after use and remade into new bottles.” Harrison explains, “The beverage industry cannot deliver on its promises of sustainability packaging without serious improvements to the current U.S. recycling system.”

Including the matching grants and investors, the initiative committed to investing $400 million in American recycling programs so the amount of new plastic used to bring beverages to market can be reduced, according to Katherine Lugar, CEO of the American Beverage Association.

Carrie Katan, U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Zero Waste program fellow and co-author of the PIRG report, says, “It’s past time to make sure that recycling, composting and waste reduction each play an important role in the fight against microplastic pollution, climate change and other environmental challenges.”

As Katan explains, “It’s entirely within our power to fix the system.”