Student Intern Column: “National Sword: How China has Changed the Global Recycling Market”

A worker in a pile of plastic bottles. Image courtesy the The Economist.
A worker in a pile of plastic bottles. Image courtesy the The Economist.

Elisa Guerrero a senior studying Community and Environmental Sociology with a certificate in Environmental Studies. She began interning at the Office of Sustainability during the summer of 2018 and has worked with the Green Office team to provide sustainability training for offices on campus. She is interested in the intersection between social justice and environmental sustainability and hopes to work with urban community development after graduation. Having grown up in Denver, Elisa loves spending her time camping, hiking, and skiing.

“Is our recycling actually getting recycled?”

I’ve been asked this question numerous times while giving presentations about waste and recycling practices on UW Madison’s campus. It’s a valid question, considering some of the alarming headlines from the past year. News outlets from the New York Times to Madison’s own Isthmus have written articles about how recycling programs across the US are struggling and recycling material is ending up in landfills. A recent change in Chinese import regulation triggered this recycling crisis, and its impacts are reverberating across the globe.

China has imported large quantities of the world’s recyclables since the 1990s, but their 2017 regulation titled “National Sword” significantly limits the types of foreign plastics they accept. Since the policy was implemented, municipalities across the US have been scrambling to find a place for the 10 million tons of recyclable materials that used to be shipped to China each year. So what caused China to change its regulation, and how can the US adapt?

In the US, plastics and other recyclable materials are collected from homes and businesses and sent to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where they are sorted and baled. Before National Sword, recyclable plastics were then shipped overseas to China for processing into new material. This model worked well for the US, because there are very few domestic mills that can process recyclable plastics into new material. It was also cost-effective because containers that were sent from China to the US, which were filled with manufactured goods, could be sent back to China full of recyclables. This recycling model culminated in the US and many other Global North countries becoming dependent on China to take their recycling. In fact, China has received 45.1% of all cumulative plastic waste imports (106 million metric tons) since 1992 .

In 2017, however, the Chinese government changed its foreign import policy to restrict items that it deemed harmful to Chinese citizens, which included banning the import of 24 types of plastic scrap material. Because of these restrictions, the US and many other countries no longer have a reliable market for recycled plastics. In the US, some recycling programs have limited the kinds of plastics they accept, while others have had to dump recyclables into landfills because they don’t have capacity to store them until other markets emerge. Globally, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic will be displaced because of National Sword by 2030.

Although it would be easy to paint the Chinese government as the villain in this story, since they appear to be thwarting the environmentally-friendly practice of recycling, the situation is more complex than it might seem. In many ways, the current system of recycling imports and exports is an international-scale example of an environmental injustice, where the environmental harms of recycling processing is unevenly distributed between the Global North and the Global South. Recycling is generally an environmentally friendly practice, because it keeps waste out of landfills, reduces demand for raw natural resources, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, processing recyclable plastics into new materials, like many other industrial activities, causes air and water pollution that can have serious health consequences for the people living and working near those facilities. Although it can difficult to prove a direct causal link between industrial activity and specific health conditions, people living near industrial sites tend to experience higher rates of pulmonary disease, heart conditions and cancer. In China, where factories might lack adequate pollution controls and safety equipment, people living and working in recycling facilities have experienced high blood pressure and respiratory issues, on top of poor water and air quality. When we export our plastic recyclables to China, we are also pushing the negative health effects onto people there.

Chinese citizens and the international community are becoming more aware of these environmental harms, especially as documentaries like “Plastic China,” which documents plastic pollution effects, gain international attention. Although it’s difficult to say what exactly prompted China to pass National Sword, the Chinese government was likely fueled by this increased awareness and pressure to improve their country’s environmental health. In addition to restricting imports, National Sword cracks down on Chinese recycling operations that do not adequately measure and control their pollution, which could be highly beneficial for public health. The international community may be frustrated by the problems National Sword has created for their recycling programs, but China is under no special obligation to continue dealing with the global recycling stream.

So what can we do in the wake of National Sword? The very first step is to find out if your own recycling program has stopped accepting certain items, so that you don’t accidentally contaminate the recycling system. For Madison residents, Pelliteri Waste Systems is still collecting #1-7 plastics, which means that nothing has changed yet.

While staying up to date on your local recycling program is always good practice, however, the more impactful step is reducing the amount of waste you create in the first place. One of the best-known slogans of the environmental movement is “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but it seems that we’ve lost track of reducing and reusing in our quest to recycle. Despite the mess that National Sword has created for recycling in the US, I think that the crisis it has created offers an opportunity to think critically about our consumption and challenges us to take responsibility of the consequences of our lifestyles. Given how other Southeast Asian countries are also tightening their regulations on imported plastics, it seems unlikely that we will simply find other markets for our recycling.

Ultimately, the US will need to build capacity to process plastics, and at the same time, we will need to reduce packaging waste, cut down on single use plastics, and start designing products with a cradle to cradle design in mind. These are solutions that have long been part of environmental conversations, but my hope is that our new recycling reality under National Sword will be the catalyst for those solutions to be made real.