Cardboard RecyclingChina’s move to open their economy in the 1990s was a boon to recyclers.  China needed all kinds of waste products — from plastics to corrugated cardboard — to fuel their factories which were suddenly producing all kinds of products for exports.

At the time, China was willing to accept the environmental consequences of importing other countries’ scrap.  As it becomes more economically developed, they are becoming less willing to accept the side effects of low-quality materials.

Chinese Moves, American Impacts

That move has consequences here in Arizona.  We may not be able to ship our recyclables to China at the same levels as before. Americans are now used to recycling their paper and plastics.  But that recycled material has to be used somewhere. If China is not accepting it any longer, what happens to it?

The answer is that much of it is ending up in landfills, despite consumers and businesses efforts to be more environmentally friendly.  The price recycling companies fetch for recyclables has dropped as much as 75 percent.

Effect on Recycling Corrugated Cardboard

  • Recycling corrugated cardboard is no longer a growth industry.
  • Corrugated cardboard must have less than 0.3 percent contamination to be acceptable for Chinese imports.
  • Some recycled corrugated cardboard will be absorbed by the domestic market.
  • Opportunities to export to emerging economies such as Vietnam may evolve.

It may play out that corrugated cardboard recycling survives because unlike other types of papers, it was not on the list of 24 banned products.  

But the Chinese move puts American industry in a position where moving to a “zero waste” environment becomes more necessary.  The Chinese regulatory moves lower demand for such products and thus reduces the prices recycled material can fetch on the open market.

It will also require both public and private recycling operations to upgrade their facilities because less contamination is allowed in exports.

In the first 6 months of the program, China rejected 800 metric tons of recyclables.  It is possible that future trade negotiations will cause China to reverse course, but as it stands now, the industry should be prepared to change their approach to recycling corrugated cardboard.