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Issues Of The Environment: China’s Restrictions On Imported Recyclables Are Felt In Washtenaw County

May 2, 2018

Recycling and Unrecycling at Sun Park in China
Credit Wikipedia Media Commons / wikipedia.org

China has declared that it would no longer accept certain recycled materials from outside its borders, and that has affected many recycling programs in the U.S., including those in Washtenaw County.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks to Recycle Ann Arbor interim CEO Bryan Weinart about local impacts and the future of recycling. 


Overview

  • China has long been the leading purchaser of U.S. recyclables, but in January 2018, the Chinese government declared that they would no longer act as the world’s trash dump.
  • The Chinese government clamped down on the types of materials that are legally accepted, setting benchmarks for acceptable levels of contamination that are nearly impossible for U.S. recyclers to achieve.
  • Bryan Weinert, Interim Chief Executive Officer for Recycle Ann Arbor, says the Chinese ban on certain types of recyclables that were previously accepted has the potential to be a game changer for U.S. recycling. Washtenaw County will certainly feel it, but how much is still to be determined. In the first quarter of 2018, commodity prices have declined 36%. (Source: NYSE: WM)

The Ban

Beginning January 1st, 2018 China instituted a new policy banning the import of 24 types of solid waste including unsorted paper products and polyethylene terephthalate (a low-grade plastic used in bottles). They also instituted a new contamination rate for recycling imports of just 0.5% and temporarily suspended licenses for many recyclers.

In a note to the W.T.O China said: Large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in with the solid wastes that can be used for raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously.

The ban has caused a serious upheaval in the recycling markets around the world. Recycling commodity prices declined 36% in Q1 2018 alone and volumes declined as well, if only by 1% at Waste Management (NYSE: WM).

Many recycling operators in western countries are feeling the heat as China has historically been the number one importer of recycling, accounting for 51% of worldwide scrap plastic imports last year. From Oregon to the United Kingdom, backups of recycling are being reported as businesses struggle to find new destinations for their now overly contaminated recycling.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu