US Cities Burn Recyclables in Face of China's Import Ban
Cities throughout the United States and across several Western nations are faced with serious logistical and environmental difficulties as China’s import bans continue to roll into effect. Since China announced in 2017 that it “no longer wanted to be the world’s garbage dump,” rounds of import bans on plastic and paper products have led authorities to question how to deal with an excess of recyclables.
China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued a statement on April 19, 2018 detailing thirty-two different types of scrap materials that will be banned from import. Half went into effect on Dec. 31, 2018, and the other sixteen will be banned starting on Dec. 31, 2019. These materials include scrap metals and follow earlier announcements to prohibit other types of recyclables and establish tighter quality standards on scrap imports in general. China began importing secondary raw materials in the 1980s and has since become the largest importer of recyclables in the world.
Robin Weiner, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, stated that “the Chinese government’s announcement will have an impact on more than 676,000 metric tons, worth about $278 million, in US scrap commodity exports to China in the first year and another 85,000 metric tons worth more than $117 million in the second year,” numbers that the United States have seen come to fruition.
A recent Guardian piece detailed the struggle many cities in the US face since the bans have gone into effect. Chester City, Pennsylvania sees around 200 tons of recyclables incinerated every day since China’s import ban was instated. According to Milman, “the loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans are being stuffed into domestic landfills or simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US.”
In addition to the pollution caused by incineration, the bans have much larger implications for the environment as a whole- with recycling rates being cut, it is evident that our already volatile environment will see consequences. Only 9% of plastic is recycled in the US, which combined with the effects of China’s import bans means that many of the recyclables that Americans separate are unable to be processed. Furthermore, many people are uncertain of what products are actually recyclable- when non-recyclables are thrown into a recycling bin, they “contaminate” the entire cart and render it unusable. Waste Management offers several resources for more information on how and what to recycle.