Cities Turning to Non-Green Options to Handle Recyclable Material After China Halts Imports

Published May 22, 2019

In January 2018, China announced it would no longer allow the importation of used plastic and paper materials for recycling.

For decades, China bought the world’s used plastic, paper, and scrap metal, turning them into products for domestic consumption and export. As China’s economic growth has slowed, and its trash piles have grown, the country decided it could no longer be the world’s dumping ground. China’s decision is beginning to have dramatic effects on recycling efforts in U.S. cities, as domestic recycling facilities have begun charging cities more to handle their waste stream. Some cities have begun to burn or bury recyclable material rather than pay the higher prices.

For example, Philadelphia now burns about half its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. Memphis’ international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but the cans, bottles, and newspapers collected in them are now sent to a landfill, not recycled. And Deltona, Florida suspended its curbside program after deciding it was too expensive.

Imperiling the Recycling Movement

Until the import ban on recyclables, China was a big buyer of recyclable materials from the United States. China stopped accepting U.S. waste after determining too much trash non-recyclable material was mixed in with the recyclable waste. Thailand and India picked up some of the slack after China’s ban, but now those countries are also restricting waste imports.

The change in global scrap markets began affecting American cities and towns last year, and the problems are getting worse with fewer buyers of recycled material.

Recycling companies have responded by charging cities more for the effort, in some cases 400 percent more than they charged in 2018.

In the wake of rising costs, cities and towns are raising taxes, cutting other municipal services, suspending their recycling programs, or quietly diverting their recyclable material to landfills or incinerators.

‘Virtue Signaling’

The impact of China’s ban shows continued demands for people to recycle is more about a person signaling their environmental purity rather than about truly helping the environment, says Marc Morano, publisher of Climate Depot.

“Recycling is increasingly becoming a means of virtue signaling rather than about genuinely reducing waste,” Moreno said. “As cities, towns, and trash collectors increasingly combine and burn or place in landfills the painstakingly sorted recyclables, environmental scolds are still demanding consumers to follow recycling rules despite the fact the sorted materials are often not recycled. 

“The environmental community is now being slapped in the face with the realization that any vision of ‘green’ world which relies on China’s role is farcical,” Moreno said. 

Technology Improving Recycling’s Future

Despite the crisis the recycling movement is currently undergoing, technology is improving which will bring recycling back, says Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center.

“This is definitely a problem right now because China was a major buyer for a lot of those materials, but the countervailing argument is recycling technology is improving pretty significantly,” said Myers. “For instance, things which it used to make little sense to recycle, because of high labor costs or the availability of cheap virgin materials compared to the costs and resources used in recycling, are now seeing the amount of labor and resources declining, so technology is increasing the relative value of recycling for some materials even as the market has temporarily gone away for others.

“For a long time, I was a recycling skeptic because the economics didn’t make sense – you had to pay extra to recycle, meaning we were using more resources than you were saving,” said Myers. “But I believe now we’re moving toward a place where recycling will make much more sense than it does now.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas