The recycling industry got some big news last month when the World Trade Organization announced that China is intending to stop importing 24 different types of solid waste by the end of the year, including commonly accepted curbside recyclables like mixed paper and scrap plastics.

At first glance, this presents a sizable challenge to how we recycle in America. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) estimates that by weight, 70 percent of the recycling material sent to China that will be captured by the ban is mixed paper. But the recycling industry has a history of overcoming market challenges.

“The recycling industry will eventually adjust,” says Adina Renee Adler, senior director for government relations and international affairs for ISRI. “There might be a short-term challenges that can be overcome in the long-term.”

So what does all of this mean for you, the avid recycler? Let’s get a better understanding of the proposed ban.

What is being banned?

Of the 24 materials listed, the most relevant to consumers are mixed paper (everything from magazines to phone books), scrap plastics (including food containers and plastic casing from electronics) and textiles (clothing and linens).

While all of these materials do have recycling markets in the U.S., their commodity value means it is often more cost-effective to export them for recycling.

Why is China banning imports?

China launched the National Sword 2017 Program in February, which involved investigating shipments of recyclables at the port, including weighing and X-rays. This included arrests and shutdowns of Chinese recyclers who weren’t using the necessary pollution controls.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen recyclers face restrictions when it comes to exporting materials.

  • In 2007, the EPA enforced regulations on exporting cathode ray tubes (CRTs, or tube televisions and computer monitors), as many American recyclers were choosing to export them due to the costs and restrictions of removing the lead from the CRT glass. The Chinese have enforced stiffer inspections at both ports and facilities to evaluate the amount and quality of materials being imported.
  • In 2013, China created the Green Fence program, which enforced restrictions on imported electronic scrap for three years in an effort to control “hazardous waste” imports. American recycling collection programs improved their restrictions and sorting technology, and the exporting of recyclables continued.

Can materials go elsewhere?

China represents the largest trade partner for U.S. recyclables, and is one of the world’s foremost importers of recyclable material. If all material is banned, it will be a challenge to replace that demand for our recyclables.

Demand is growing in India, Southeast Asia and Latin America, but not at the rate needed to replace what we send to China. We also don’t currently have the capacity to recycle everything we produce in the U.S. without exporting.

What impact will this have on curbside recycling?

Since the Chinese ban is not yet in place, we don’t know yet how it will affect the market for what you recycle at the curb. We still don’t even know at what level it will be enforced.

“Part of the complications we are having is that the information coming from the Chinese government is unclear,” says Adler. “We are trying to get those answers from the government.”

The biggest hope for the U.S. will be to continue exporting quality recyclables with minimal contamination.

“We empathize with the Chinese government that doesn’t want to import trash into China,” Adler says. “We want to help out without preventing legitimate trade.”

But part of the issue occurs with the sorting technology used when materials enter a material recovery facility (MRF). “Many facilities are very good at separating glass from paper,” Adler says. “The sorting technology can sense the difference between two-dimensional and three-dimensional items, but single-stream recycling trucks will compress materials, which could make a 3-D material look like a 2-D material.”

As a consumer, there is not much you can do to change the way recyclables are transported to the MRF. What you can do is always recycle the highest-value materials, like aluminum cans and cardboard. Recycling these materials generates the most revenue for your local recycling program and can help justify expenses like improved sorting technologies.

How can you take action?

Besides recycling high-quality material and limiting contamination, here are some things we can do at home:

  • Know what your recycling program accepts and doesn’t accept. If you are putting in plastic bags thinking that they are “plastic” even though they are specifically mentioned as not accepted, you’re either costing the city money to remove them or they may make it through sorting and cause exported materials to be flagged.
  • Do your best to provide clean, high-value recyclables. Rinsing your bottles and cans takes five seconds. Collapsing cardboard boxes before you recycle them should be second nature. We need to stop treating recyclables the same way we treat trash, because this material has to be sold.
  • Express concern to your representatives about the Chinese ban, because it may not stop at paper and plastic. “Our products are the highest quality in the world,” says Adler. “Talk to members of Congress, who will tell the administration to plead our case to the WTO and the Chinese government directly. It starts at the grassroots level.”

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.