China’s Recycling Ban: What Do We Do with Our Plastics Now?

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Thanks to curbside recycling programs, most Americans have developed an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude in regard to their recyclable waste. In fact, many of us are completely unaware that there are numerous materials that aren’t easily recycled nearby — and in many cases, this waste has been making its way to China.

What’s more, we’re not the only ones sending waste to China. As the world’s biggest importer of recycled materials, China has been taking in materials from a number of major countries, including Canada, the U.K. and Japan. In 2016 alone, Chinese manufacturers imported more than 7.3 million metric tons of waste materials from developed countries.

But as of Jan. 1, 2018, China’s put the kibosh on many of these imports; they are no longer allowing us to send over much of the plastic and paper we’ve been shipping there for decades. What gives?

What’s This “Ban,” Anyway?

In a July 2017 filing with the World Trade Organization (WTO), China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that they would no longer be taking imports of mixed paper, post-consumer plastics (including difficult-to-recycle types #3 to #7) and vanadium slag. Furthermore, starting in March 2018, they would be setting a prohibitive contamination limit of 0.5 percent on all other waste imports. This limit is so restrictive that it effectively furthers the original ban.

But why would they do this?

Well, for the past two decades, the recyclables China has been importing from other countries have had a high rate of contamination — we’re talking anything from minor impurities to full-on hazardous waste. The toxins from these materials were being released into the environment during the recycling process, and contaminated waste was being dumped into rivers. These problems combined to form serious air-quality issues, polluted drinking water and, ultimately, a public health crisis.

In short, China was tired of us dumping our environmental issues onto their shoulders and they decided to fight back.

Is There Hope for the Future of Recycling?

We can’t blame China for wanting to take care of their country — after all, any deterioration of Chinese environmental conditions has a global impact. However, even if their good intentions are realized, the ban is likely to cause environmental problems in other parts of the world as recyclers are now desperately sending their waste to countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

But here’s the thing: The rest of the world can’t make up for the sheer volume of waste we’re creating. Three months into the ban and waste has already started to build up. Materials that were once deemed recyclable are ending up in landfills and incinerators. More virgin materials are being mined and manufactured to make up for production demands.

Furthermore, since so much of our economy depends on international trade, this could prove to be a serious financial problem for the U.S. Our $5 billion domestic recycling industry is in danger of collapsing as millions of tons of material has been orphaned, driving prices for recycled materials into a downward spiral.

Though things may seem dark at the moment, there is hope for the future. The China recycling ban has the potential to set in motion a far more progressive disposal and recycling system in developed countries around the world. In fact, Lloyd Alter of Treehugger has already pointed out that this may be a “Sputnik Moment” for the plastics and recycling industry. This is our opportunity to move away from the belief that everything can and should be recycled. We should instead be furthering the cause of waste prevention, reuse, eco-design and, of course, a circular economy.

What Can I Do in the Meantime?

Many municipalities have stopped curbside pickup of the materials banned by China, which means we must find a way to deal with this as consumers. Check with your municipality or local recycler to see if anything has changed when it comes to what you can put in your recycling bin. For items that are no longer being accepted, make a plan to reduce your usage of those.

Plastics may very well no longer be accepted — and it’s possible that some types will be, while others won’t. Familiarize yourself with the various kinds of plastic, then read up on how you can use less of what can’t be recycled.

  • #1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE or polyester)
    • Common Uses: Beverage bottles (water, soft drinks, juice, etc.), condiment jars (peanut butter, jam, mayonnaise, etc.), detergent and cleaner containers
  • #2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
    • Common Uses: Plastic grocery bags, garbage bags, food containers (yogurt, butter, etc.), opaque beverage containers, milk jugs, detergent and cleaner containers, shampoo bottles, plastic dishes, cereal box liners, some pill bottles
  • #3: Polyvinyl chloride (V or vinyl or PVC)
    • Common Uses: Toys, clamshell packaging, clear food containers, non-food packaging (Bubble Wrap, cling wrap), squeeze bottles, shampoo and mouthwash bottles, cooking oil bottles, household cleaner bottles, shower curtains
  • #4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
    • Common Uses: Thin film-like bags for groceries, dry cleaning, bread, frozen food, newspapers and garbage; plastic wraps; coating for paper milk cartons and hot & cold beverage cups; some squeezable bottles; food storage containers and lids
  • #5: Polypropylene (PP)
    • Common Uses: Food containers (ketchup, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream, syrup, takeout), pill bottles, straws, bottle caps, opaque plastic containers, baby bottles, disposable diaper, sanitary pad liners
  • #6: Polystyrene (PS)
    • Common Uses: Styrofoam food containers, packing peanuts, bike helmet liners, disposable cutlery and razors, CD and DVD cases, pill bottles
  • #7: Other (O) — All Other Plastics
    • Common Uses: Baby bottles, sippy cups, reusable plastic water bottles, three- and five-gallon water storage containers, metal food can liners, juice and ketchup containers, oven-baking bags

Cutting back on plastic use is one of the best ways to reduce your household waste. Here are ways you can avoid the use of plastics:

  • For food and beverage, purchase in bulk and use reusable glass, stainless steel or ceramic containers whenever possible.
  • Buy food packaged in paper, cardboard or glass.
  • Make your own bread and buy produce fresh instead of frozen.
  • Package leftovers in ceramic or glass containers.
  • Wrap foods at home in paper or aluminum foil — skip the Ziploc.
  • Carry a glass or stainless steel reusable water bottle.
  • Avoid Styrofoam takeout containers — bring your own reusable containers to put the food in.
  • Use reusable cloth or canvas grocery and produce bags at the store.
  • When ordering drinks, ask for no straw.
  • Use reusable dishes and cutlery for picnics and parties.
  • Make your own household cleaners and detergents.
  • Use recycled cardboard, craft paper, cellulose wadding or compostable cornstarch peanuts for packaging purposes.
  • Use hemp or cotton shower curtains.
  • Use cloth diapers.
  • Try reusable feminine hygiene products, such as menstrual cups, reusable pads or special “period-proof” underwear.
  • Buy used or wooden toys.
  • Compost as much of your waste as possible to reduce the use of plastic trash bags.

Conclusion

China’s new ban is representative of a growing shift toward the willingness to accept economic disruptions in order to protect our precious environment. And though it may have temporarily turned the global waste industry on its head, it has also placed the responsibility of recycling — including dealing with its limitations — back into our hands. It’s time for consumers and governments everywhere to step forward and make a pledge to heavily reduce the amount of waste we’re creating. Our planet depends on it.

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Liz Greene

Liz Greene

Liz Greene is an animal-loving, makeup obsessing, pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest makeup misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies.
Liz Greene