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China is Closing its Door on Imported Waste, so Who Should Open the Other One?

10 October 2017

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In the past a large proportion of the waste, particularly plastic, that we produce in the US has gone to China to be recycled.  However, recent events have lead to China closing its doors on these imports and the US must look to another outlet.


The History: Handing it over

For decades, we have sent shipping containers full of plastic waste, and other waste streams, to China.  Waste is one of the largest US exports to China and accounts for billions of dollars a year. 

But why, up until now, have China wanted our waste? 

More and more, countries in all parts of the world are realising that waste isn’t actually ‘a waste’- it’s a resource.  Recycling of ‘waste’ products has become a global industry and China is known to be number one for it because of their need for raw materials to process.

This practice wasn’t without its critics. Many people, politicians included, noted that we were starving US recycling businesses from the chance to recycle at home.  Worse still, many were worried about where our waste was going.  How did we know all of it was being recycled?     

The Present: Rethinking our waste

It seems that China has had enough.  From last month (September 2017) China’s ban on 24 varieties of waste imports took effect.

One of the reasons for China’s recent change of heart is thought to be increased contamination in the waste being imported from the UK/US.  With more stringent regulations on landfill and higher landfill taxes, some companies, though by no means all, were thought to have taken advantage of the open door in China. 

Another reason behind the import ban in China is simply the country’s excess of waste.  Like in the US, the country is experiencing a build up of trash, and a lack of space in which to put it.  With an estimated population of four times the size of that of the US, we can only imagine the amount of waste produced.

In the past, China has often bitten off more than she can chew in terms of imports- bringing in way more waste than can be recycled.  That’s when waste is really ‘a waste’ and the country wants to change this pattern.  Can we blame them?

We may not blame China for this change of heart, however the closed door means that there needs to be another way.  The US is set to experience a huge surplus in these raw materials, as China will only accept the least contaminated.

The Future: Taking control

The saying goes that ‘when one door closes, another one opens’ however when it comes to the famous phrase attributed to Alexander Graham Bell, we often are unaware of the remainder of the saying: “…but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”.

Although a challenge, recycling technology exists in the US to process this waste.  Whether it be plastic bags or paper, road sweeping waste or contaminated land, advancements in technology mean we are without excuse.  When one door closes, we must open the other for ourselves.