Recycling is not exactly a sexy topic of conversation. But when it’s backing up like a plugged pipeline, piling up into the air and spilling over our capacity to handle it like an overflowing toilet, it kind of becomes of an important discussion.
Which is where we stand today. Our recyclables are stacking up all around us, rising like water, inundating us in our own waste — all because of China. The People’s Republic is trying to clean up their environmental act, and it’s mucking ours up.
You see, for decades America has been shipping most of our recyclable waste to China. We simply can’t deal with the insane amount of plastic, cardboard, paper and aluminum that we produce. Not domestically, at least. Besides, cleaning all that junk and sorting it properly is an uncomfortably expensive and labor-intensive ordeal in the America — not so much in China. They’d take our recycling for cheap, no matter how dirty or poorly-sorted it was, without question.
And boy, did we take advantage of that. The US has unabashedly used China as a crutch to bear the burden of our recycling for a long time. And so has most of the world for that matter — since 1992, China has recycled over 45 percent of the planet’s recyclables.
But the Chinese have finally had enough. With a policy called “National Sword” the People’s Republic is effectively cutting us (and everyone else) off, in one fell hew. They’re forcing America to choose: step up its recycling game and improve upon our waste-management habits, or drown in an ocean of our own recyclable waste.
That’s a possibility, too. Somewhere around 111 million metric tons of plastic are expected to be displaced by National Sword over the next 10 years. That’s over a million elephant’s-worth of recyclables with nowhere to go…
And sadly, some of it is heading straight to the landfill.
“Certainly, there were some incidents of things having to be sent to the landfill,” says Marjie Griek, the director of the National Recycling Coalition. She says that the industry tried to stockpile as much of their backed-up recycling as was possible, but with nowhere to send all of it, some simply had to go to the dump. “That was really a hard thing, and most recyclers don't really like to talk about that.”
For good reason too. Incidents like those reinforce the urban legend that “all recycling goes to a landfill anyway.” Griek says that’s simply not true, normally — except when the Chinese government is chopping our easy-route access with their National Sword.
“Under President Xi they're really trying to improve their environment, get rid of companies that are polluting a lot, they're trying to clean the streams and clean the air,” explains Griek. “And so this [National Sword] is just one of the many tools that they're using to try and do that.”
China looked at the cost of dealing with America’s filthy recycling, looked at the health risks of dealing with poorly-sorted plastics (i.e. hypodermic needles, broken glass, jagged metal scraps), and watched Donald Trump waving around tariffs like a lunatic, and decided, “No. We’re not doing this anymore.”
The Chinese government merely raised its standards for what they’d accept and the resulting chaos has backed America up like a cheese and dairy buffet. As a nation, we are constipated and we are struggling to find the right laxative — that is, the right solution to our recycling problem.
“Initially the west coast seemed to feel it the most dramatically,” says Griek. “It was so easy for them to just load things on a barge and ship it to China … it was very inexpensive for them.”
That changed, though, with the implementation of National Sword. The West Coast’s waste started piling up and that problem spread slowly across the country. America’s recycling industry began to fall into madness, into panic, and people started scrambling to whip up a solution.
Coalitions were formed, events were organized and summits were held to address the problem — Griek says that it actually brought a lot of people within the recycling industry together, coalesced them around a common cause: the need to sort this mess out.
“As with so many changes when it first happens you think it's just the worst thing in the world,” Griek says. “And then you kind of adjust and figure out how to do things a little differently. And from my perspective it [National Sword] was actually a very good thing for the recycling industry.”
Now that China has raised the standards for what they’ll accept, America has had to take a step back and rethink the way it handles this kind of waste. We can’t go on like this; can’t continue along this slapdash path of cavalier recycling. It’s time we got our shit together.
Which, according to Griek, is exactly what’s happening.
“We weren't doing a very good job of keeping materials clean and separated properly,” explains Griek. “So now if you want to sell your materials they need to be clean, and they need to be what you say they are … and yes, it costs a bit more to do that.”
That’s a cost that the American recycling industry is just going to have to shoulder, though — lest this backup problem become a backup emergency. There was an effort to seek other markets which we could send recyclables to, other Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam and India. But they don’t have the same kind of capacity to deal with these materials as does China, they don’t have the massive recycling infrastructure and deep-water ports necessary to process almost half of the world’s recyclable waste.
And neither do we.
“People that know better than I are saying there's no way that we can domestically consume all of our waste products,” says Griek. Even if we had more recycling plants, and even if the domestic demand for recycled goods was greater, the US still wouldn’t be able to effectively process and absorb all of our recyclables.
“[This situation] has really made us sit up and pay attention.”
And believe it or not, you play a big role in helping to solve this problem. Yes, We The People are an important piece to this strange puzzle, because recycling starts with us. If we’re out there throwing garbage into recycling bins all willie-nillie or leaving food in plastic containers we mean to recycle, we’re only exacerbating the problem.
So, allow me to step up onto my not-so-sexy soap box for a moment and say: be a good recycler. No, it isn’t an exciting task. No, it isn’t a glamorous or glorious call to action — but it is a necessary one.
Lest China’s National Sword behead our recycling industry entirely.