What happens when China rejects the world’s recycling?

In 2016, the United States imported $462.6 billion in goods from China. When shipped back, many of the containers were filled with scrap and waste, America’s sixth largest export to China. Paper and cardboard from the U.S. sourced 24% of the 63.3 million tons of waste paper pulp produced by China in 2016.

Looking ahead

China has been the world’s largest paper recycler. It seems they are about to slow that pace. Last July, they announced restrictions on imports of unsorted paper, plastic, and 22 other categories of solid waste. Inspections of recovered paper have increased at their ports-of-entry, where a strict contamination limit of 0.3% is being enforced.

Chinese government sources cite environmental concerns. The dirty and hazardous material, when mixed with solid waste, contributes to environmental pollution.

Business impact

Implications of these new policies may seem good to some U.S. companies, horrific to others. From any domestic perspective, the impact is substantial.

  • Shipping companies are seeing reduced demand for ‘backhaul’, space formerly sold on returning vessels. In response, those companies offer substantial discounts to stem a potential $5 billion annual loss.
  • Recycling services must find buyers other than China for the materials they collect.
  • Manufacturers who use recycled content anticipate lower costs for the abundant scrap metal, paper, plastic, and other materials no longer shipped overseas.
Impact on the environment

According to the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), China’s restrictions will send more recyclables to incinerators or landfills. To limit this impact, anything likely to contaminate recycled materials must be identified. Municipal programs can identify the contaminants. As businesses and citizens keep the contaminants out of recycling bins, the result will be higher-value recyclables, less waste, and less pollution.

Jessica Wright

Jessica Wright

Project Manager at ecoPreserve
LEED Green Associate, Florida Water AP - - A problem-solving, innovative manager, Jessica has led projects in varied scenarios including healthcare, food services, higher education, and local government. Her expertise in Zero Waste, sustainable purchasing, and waste minimization and diversion have earned her the lead of ecoPreserve’s Resource Lifecycle services. A graduate of the University of Central Florida, she also holds a degree in Sustainability from the University of Phoenix.
Jessica Wright


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