Cleaning up the Garbage Trade

Since 2018, recyclable solid waste (such as plastics and paper that had previously found a home in China) have been buried in landfills, incinerated, or dumped where they may end up in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the foods we eat.

Although China’s National Sword Policy does not ban the import of scrap materials entirely, it limits the contamination rate to .05 percent, which is nearly impossible to meet given that the internationally accepted standard has up until this point been 3-5 percent.

But even before China’s policy, the U.S. was not managing its waste sustainably. On average, only 9 percent of discarded plastic waste from the U.S. was being recycled, while 12 percent was being burned. Now that the consequences of our fast-paced “throwaway culture” are becoming more visible to us, maybe we’ll finally do something about it.

How Did We Get Here?

It was once a mutually beneficial relationship for the U.S. to send scrap recyclables to China. The country’s contamination standard was low, pricing was competitive, and the demand for scrap materials was high.

For China, the cost of raw materials allowed them to manufacture products at a low cost that they could then sell back to the U.S. This was made even more convenient when the same shipping containers that delivered goods to American consumers were sent back to China with the recyclable materials.

Due to the country’s low labor costs coupled with the ability to sort recyclables by hand, it was more practical to sell scrap to China that could be sorted and manufactured into new products than for the U.S. to recycle at home. Thus, the “Garbage Trade” was born.

This practice went hand-in-hand with the U.S.’s practice of “single-stream” recycling, which encouraged people to place all of their recycles in one blue bin, rather than sorting the recyclables into plastics, glass, and paper.

Ultimately, it may have been this practice that brought air pollution to a level that raised concerns in China.

The Possibility of Other Markets

China is not the only country to stall imports of recyclable materials over this issue.

After the Chinese Sword Policy in 2018, other countries in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia attempted to take on the waste material before implementing similar restrictions.

According to Lance Klug, information officer for California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, this system of selling single-stream recyclables to China for sorting and redistribution worked for a long time. “That’s no longer the case,” Klug said, “and it’s probably never going to be the case again.”

Reducing the amount of waste generated as well as waste that cannot be easily recycled is the number one priority. Consumers can make a difference through their everyday purchases, recycling habits, and knowledge of current issues.

By only buying products that don’t use excess plastic packaging, consumers will drive demand away from those manufacturers towards those that use sustainable packaging. Additionally, being mindful of what’s recyclable and where one can prevent batches of materials from being rejected.

Ultimately, industry manufacturers need to stop producing things with excess, single-use, and difficult-to-recycle plastics. Plastics that are made up of mixed materials with toxic additives, colors, and non-water-soluble labels are contributors to the impurities that make sorting and repurposing of recyclables so difficult.

Britain plans to tax manufacturers who use plastic packaging with less than 30 percent recycled materials, and Norway requires manufacturers that use single-use plastic bottles to pay an “environmental levy,” encouraging them to collect and reuse materials to lower costs.

It’s time for us to hold ourselves and our economy of waste responsible. While the consequences of mass-manufacturing single-use products may have been invisible and profitable for a long time, the price is now too expensive and we’re paying for it with more than our money.

Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry, and we are not going anywhere even when faced with recyclable import changes. If you continue to handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions to offload idle scrap, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill Supply.