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Prior to China’s ban, 95 percent of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union and 70 percent in the U. Favorable rates for shipping in cargo vessels that carried Chinese consumer goods abroad and would otherwise return to China empty, coupled with the country’s low labor costs and high demand for recycled materials, made the practice profitable.“Everyone was sending their materials to China because their contamination standard was low and their pricing was very competitive,” says Johnny Duong, acting chief operating officer of California Waste Solutions, which handles recycling for Oakland and San Jose.Even before China’s ban, only 9 percent of discarded plastics were being recycled, while 12 percent were burned.
In the year since, China’s plastics imports have plummeted by 99 percent, leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed.
While the glut of plastics is the main concern, China’s imports of mixed paper have also dropped by a third.
China has now cut off imports of all but the cleanest and highest-grade materials — imposing a 99.5 percent purity standard that most exporters found all-but impossible to meet.
“All recyclable plastics from municipal recycling programs have been pretty much banned,” says Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the U. trade group National Waste and Recycling Association. Costs associated with recycling are up, revenue associated with recycling is down.
Like most municipal recycling programs, those cities contract with Duong’s company to collect and sort recyclable waste at its materials recovery facility, where they are baled and sent to end-market processors.
Before the ban, Duong says, his company sold around 70 percent of its recyclables to China. China’s action came after many recycling programs had transitioned from requiring consumers to separate paper, plastics, cans, and bottles to today’s more common “single stream,” where it all goes into the same blue bin.
Across the United States, local governments and recycling processors are scrambling to find new markets.
Communities from Douglas County, Oregon to Hancock, Maine, have curtailed collections or halted their recycling programs entirely, which means that many residents are simply tossing plastic and paper into the trash.
China’s decision to no longer be the dumping ground for the world’s recycled waste has left municipalities and waste companies from Australia to the U. It has been a year since China jammed the works of recycling programs around the world by essentially shutting down what had been the industry’s biggest market.
But experts say it offers an opportunity to develop better solutions for a growing throwaway culture.