green garbage

US states banned from exporting their trash to China are drowning in plastic

August 21, 2013
August 21, 2013

Being green is getting a lot harder for eco-friendly states in the US, thanks to the country’s dependency on overrun Chinese recycling facilities. Recycling centers in Oregon recently stopped accepting clear plastic “clamshell” containers used for berries, plastic hospital gowns and plastic bags, as the Ashland Daily Tidings reports. Yogurt and butter tubs are probably next. In Olympia, Washington, recycling centers are no longer accepting plastic bags. California’s farmers are grappling with what to do with the 50,000 to 75,000 tons of plastic they use each year.

“The problem is we don’t have a market for it,” Jeff Hardwood, an Olympia-area recycling center manager, tells Washington state’s KIRO-TV. “China is saying we are only going to accept the high-value material we have a demand for now.”

Hardwood is referring to China’s “Green Fence” campaign banning “foreign garbage” (link in Chinese). China has rejected 68,000 tons (61,700 tonnes) of waste in the first five months of 2013, when the program was officially launched. The Green Fence initiative bans bales of plastic that haven’t been cleaned or thoroughly sorted. That type of recyclable material, which costs more to recycle, often ends up in China’s landfills, which have become a source of recent unrest in the country’s south.

Instead of investing in the sorting and cleaning technologies required to process soiled and unsorted recyclables, which both China and the US have been reluctant to do, China’s Green Fence policy blocks the import of those plastics. As a result, US recycling centers that once accepted scrap plastic for recycling are being forced to send it to American landfills.

As we’ve discussed before, Americans generally don’t recycle their plastic; they export it. And more than half of the $1 billion a year business goes to China.

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​​The full-year projection for 2013 is based on January-June data.

Green Fence has contributed to the 11% decline in export value of US plastic scrap in the first half of 2013, compared with the same period in 2012. China’s customs data reflect that too. It imported 20% less plastic scrap in Q2 than the same quarter of 2012, a value of $300 million less.

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(Big dips in January and February are due to the shutting down of businesses during Chinese New Year.)​

And yet, Chinese processing factories desperately need US plastic. Once reprocessed, it’s used to make everything from polar fleeces to stadium seats. China imports around 40% of the world’s plastic scrap, collecting the rest domestically. Now that China’s plastic scrap supply is being squeezed by Green Fence bans, plastics smuggling at ports and in cities (links in Chinese) is on the rise.

For every ton of reusable plastic, China has received many more tons of random trash, some of it toxic. That has helped build “trash mountains” so high they sometimes bury people alive (link in Chinese). For a country facing environmental crisis after environmental crisis, this is no longer tenable.

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Discarded plastic bottles imported from Australia are seen at a plant in Hong Kong's rural New Territories August 24, 2011, before a process which separates plastic waste from them. The "Plastic Waste-to-Fuel System" is designed to provide a practical and cost effective solution to plastic waste management with energy regeneration. A prototype machine can process three tonnes of plastic waste into 1,000 litres of fuel oil per day. With further refinement, the fuel oil is suitable for diesel engine usage, said Ecotech Recycling Social Enterprise Managing Director Ming Cheung. Picture taken August 24, 2011. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
The unsorted piles of plastic that China imported before Green Fence.Reuters/Bobby Yip

Because US trash exporters haven’t been forced to spend on technology or labor to sort and clean trash piled up at its recycling centers—Chinese laborers have handled that part—those shipments have been profitable for US exporters. But Green Fence is shifting those economic incentives; It costs the US around $2,100 per shipping container to return rejected trash to California ports.

Those high costs may drive the US to expand its own recycling capacity. Until then, American pollution will no longer be piling up in China; It will be festering at home.

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