The recycling industry is constantly evolving. Sometimes it is in response to new technology, but other times, external regulations (both domestic and foreign) require recyclers to change. In 2011, China rewrote the rules of recyclable imports and in 2013, they started enforcing their rules. In 2017, new rules went into place dramatically limiting the amount of contamination, or secondary products, in each shipment. As a result, recycling companies like Recycle 1 have had to change their strategies.
To give you an idea of how this developed, the United States imports many finished goods from China. That means hundreds of thousands of shipping containers are left empty at US ports and the ships going back to China have few exports. The recycling industry took advantage of this situation and started shipping much of our recyclables to China. The Chinese would then turn our waste into new finished products.
Over time, China realized that not all recyclables were created equal. Some of the recyclable shipments were highly useful in the manufacturing process. But a significant amount of the recyclables they were receiving could not be turned into new products and was instead becoming an environmental hazard.
The initial crackdown on undesirable recyclables in 2011 and 2013 was known as “The Green Fence.” The 2017 updates were called “National Sword.” Both the Green Fence and National Sword policies are affecting us today.
The impact here in Arizona is that we have to be more selective about what we ship to China. That means that materials which would have been sent to China under the old system have no place to go. Many recyclables like plastic bags cannot legally be put into landfills, but there is no place to send them. So, recycling facilities are having to store products that they cannot get rid of. Eventually, they will have to stop accepting anything but the highest quality recyclables.
Americans have been taught to separate their trash so that some of it can be recycled. We may have to rethink what is recyclable in the near future and decide how to dispose of waste that we’d rather ship somewhere else.
For an evolving timeline click on over to Resource Recycling’s From Green Fence to red alert: A China timeline.