Despite the perception among some that relations between the United States and China are unfriendly, these two powerful nations actually have a strong history of working together on key issues. For example, China is the world’s largest global importer of most types of recycling materials, importing more than 7.3 million metric tons of waste products from developed countries. Accordingly, it’s been a reliable external source to accept our recycled goods — especially those that aren’t easily recyclable.

Why is this the case? As a leading manufacturer on the international scene, and as a country with limited access to resources of its own, China needs those materials to keep its economy running — at least, it has until recently.

In July 2017, China announced a series of new restrictions on imported materials, including an outright ban on 24 different categories of recyclable materials to be phased out by the end of 2017. Now, seven months after the announcement, American cities big and small are starting to feel the effects of the ban.

Details of the Ban

In its filings with the World Trade Organization, China expressed a desire to protect human health and safety. According to its data, the vast majority of the solid recyclables it accepted were contaminated with dirty material, which can’t be recycled, and even dangerous compounds, like mercury, which can compromise any recycling operation. The use of these dirty and hazardous materials has led to increased pollution and has jeopardized the health of Chinese citizens, according to the reports.

Though 24 types of materials are now banned, the most impactful part of the ban is undoubtedly plastic. The ban went into effect gradually over the course of 2017, so now, cities have had several weeks — or longer — to start living with the consequences.

How North American Cities Are Affected

So how exactly are cities being affected by the ban?

  1. Waste buildup. Without a convenient place to ship plastics and other materials, many cities are starting to see an accumulation of waste. For example, the Canadian city of Calgary has stockpiled more than 5 million kilograms of recycled waste just in the past three months. This waste takes up space, creating a major dilemma for recycling and waste companies.
  2. Alternative export sites. Companies in some cities are scrambling to find an alternative country to accept the massive amounts of recyclables building up. In Oregon, some companies are looking at sources like Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Malaysia — essentially, any country that would possibly consider accepting the material. Unfortunately, even all these other sources together can’t make up for what China once accepted.
  3. Plastic cuts. Some cities are addressing the root of the problem by limiting the amount of plastic they allow; for example, by enforcing a ban on plastic bags in grocery stores. This is a savvy long-term measure, but because it takes time to take effect, it doesn’t have an immediate bearing on the accumulated waste.
  4. New recycling rules. Previous recycling efforts have been designed to collect as much potential recycling as possible, sorting out the dirty or unusable material later. Now, recycling companies are considering drawing up — and enforcing — stricter laws about what can be included in recycling bins. Some companies are even considering adding cameras to collection trucks, to catch and report people putting trash in recycling bins.
  5. Incineration and landfill consideration. Without anywhere to put the excess material, companies have limited options for disposal. They’re starting to consider incineration, which allows for some energy recovery but also runs the risk of polluting the environment, and storing the waste in landfills, which also isn’t a sound choice for the health of the environment.

We’re not in the midst of a full-blown crisis yet, but the ramifications of China’s decision are serious enough to warrant attention. The ban is already having a significant impact on recycling and waste collection in cities throughout the U.S., and throughout the developed world.

By Anna Johansson

Anna is a freelance writer, researcher and business consultant. A columnist for, and more, Anna loves enjoying the great outdoors with her family. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.