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China’s Restrictions Make Recycling Right More Important than Ever

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

Can a recycling restriction in China affect recycling in Brown County, Wisconsin? The answer is yes. Recycling takes place in a global market, and what happens across the ocean does affect us right here in Wisconsin.


The United States is part of a global recycling industry that in 2016 exported 37 million tons of materials worth $17.9 billion worldwide. By the end of that year, 60 percent of all the paper and plastic in the world was being recycled by China. In 2016, the exports that the U.S. sent to China alone were worth $5.6 billion. U.S.-China trade in recyclables took off in part because Chinese factories were willing to work with dirty materials with a high proportion of garbage in the mix. However, China is facing severe environmental issues and dramatic growth, and its Ministry of Environmental Protection has established goals to improve water, soil and air quality. As a result, China has banned the import of all but the purest recyclables under a policy known as “National Sword.”


Under this policy, as of January 1, 2018, China banned 24 categories of recyclable materials including post-consumer plastics and mixed paper. They also set a new contamination standard that has effectively stopped the importation of recyclables. In anticipation of this change, many countries, including the U.S., began sending material to other major scrap paper and plastic destinations including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. These southeast Asian countries rapidly became flooded with scrap materials and have now stopped accepting them as they catch up with an oversupply of material.



Additionally, the Chinese import ban has now affected the price we receive for the material that we sort. Programs which previously sent their recyclables to China are now looking to sell them in North America, which is creating oversupply and driving down the value of most recyclables. Some communities, especially on the West Coast, have stopped collecting and sorting certain types of paper and plastic because they can no longer get rid of what they collect.


This does not mean that we should stop recycling! Recycling is good for everyone. It helps our environment, and it helps our economy. It saves energy, prevents pollution and conserves resources, as well as creates jobs. State law requires that every Wisconsin community recycle paper, cans and bottles.


Thanks to our location and the quality of our material, the Tri-County Recycling system produces material that factories seek out and pay a premium for. With the new strict contamination restrictions on recycling loads, we need to make sure that we are not putting non-recyclables in our recycling bins. Relying on the sorting process to remove 100 percent of those items is not effective; and even if it was, it’s very time-consuming and expensive. The better solution is to Recycle Right instead of recycling wishfully.


So how do you Recycle Right? Basically, it comes down to this: If you’re not sure if something is recyclable, do not try to recycle it. This means keeping plastic bags, rope, hoses, clothing and sharps out of the recycling you put into your bins. These are the items that cause the greatest hazards for the people doing the sorting; they also cause maintenance and breakdown issues with our machinery. Leaving non-recyclables out of your recycling bin keeps the value of the recycled products high.


Simple guidelines for all recycling programs include:


Rinse Your Recyclables (and empty them too!). Food residue and liquids in bottles can cause problems with the sorting equipment, and impact other materials like paper and glass. A quick rinse is all that is required.


Cut the Cups. Single-use cups such as paper and foam cups are not recyclable in the vast majority of programs. This is also true for paper plates and Styrofoam to-go containers.


Don’t Be Flexible. Flexible packaging, such as sandwich bags, frozen food bags, toothpaste tubes, food pouches, zip pouches, and others are not accepted in curbside or drop-off programs in our area. Many local stores collect plastic bags and wraps. For guidelines and a list of stores in your area check www.plasticfilmrecycling.org.


Recycling Right is how you can make a difference in this global market of recycling.

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