For nearly three decades, the U.S. has been shipping their recyclables to China. It was a mutually beneficial relationship born from the U.S.’s overproduction of single use plastics and China’s need for raw materials.
But this relationship became a toxic one when China started to boom economically in late 90’s. It’s trash, virgin plastics production, and cost of labor increased, the food delivery industry was born and grew fast, and the U.S. was shipping more recyclables at decreasing purity levels. From home and from abroad, China found itself buried in trash.
In 2017, China’s National Sword policy put a stop to recyclable imports. We have discussed in our previous blogs that this has been a crisis for the U.S. recycling industry, but what has it been like for China?
More People, More Consumption, More Trash
When China was still growing prior to the economic boom, people were quite poor overall and didn’t buy or consume much, equating to much less waste than today. While the average Chinese person only produces about half as much solid waste as the average American person, there are many more people in China than in the U.S.
The prevalence of food delivery services, online shopping, and packaged foods have been increasing the ratio of waste per person, which is expected to grow by about 4 percent each year.
The consumption of packaged foods in China rose 10.8 percent a year between 2000 and 2008, and it’s expected to continuously increase. And in 2017, food delivery grew 65 percent from the previous year, with most food being transported with plastic containers within plastic bags.
Looking at food delivery alone, China as a nation throws out about 60 million takeway food containers every day.
There are more than 300 million tons of paper, plastic, and other garbage produced in China each year according to Nie Youngfent, a waste management expert at Beijing's Tsinghua University. And at least 85 percent of it ends up in landfills, many of which are unlicensed dumps in poorer communities that only have thin linings of plastic and fiberglass. This causes heavy metals, ammonia, and bacteria to leach into the groundwater and soil, releasing methane and carbon dioxide and making nearby residents sick.
Despite this growing trash problem at home, up until recently China was purchasing 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste, and they didn’t even have the proper infrastructure to process it effectively.
Reuse and Recycling
There is no formal recycling system in China, which is shocking given that they’ve processed our recycling for so long.
Instead, there is a network of migrants who move from rural areas to the cities in order to scavenge valuable materials from trash to sell at sorting centers outside of the city. Residents in Chinese cities will intentionally avoid sorting their trash assuming that these people will do it on their behalf.
Garbage cans in the capital will sometimes have “General Waste” and “Recycling” slots, but they may still empty into the same bag.
Ultimately, recycling only happens in China when it’s profitable. As anyone in the industry knows, prices for materials like plastic and paper fluctuate drastically and unpredictably, so this is not reliable for the migrants who gather and separate these materials as work or for the country as a recycling system.
In small villages, recycling is also not common. One woman named Chen Liwen, leader of the environmental group China Zero Waste Alliance is trying to change this, supervising trash sorting in small villages. But many residents like Duan Hongquan don’t see a point. As Duan says “in these villages we don’t even have sewerage systems. Why should we care about trash?”
But the government is stepping up and making a number of laws to try to change this. In 2017, the central government announced that it would require trash and recycling separation for people living in cities by the end of 2020, charging fees to those who don’t comply. The goal is to recycle at least one-third of the waste produced by large cities by the end of next year.
China Is Cleaning Up Its Act
Rather than finding new places to dump our waste or pointing the finger at China, the U.S. as well as the rest of the world should follow China’s lead and take responsibility for our own waste.
We will continue to stay on top of the latest trends in the recycling industry and provide the timeliest updates to our readers. Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry, we are here to help you navigate through all the recyclable import changes. If you handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill supply via our website or phone at 866-333-BERG. Talk to us about purchasing all your scrap paper, plastic, metal, textiles, glass grades, e-waste, and any other materials. Make sure to check out our new consulting department as well to help you navigate through any issues you might have.