Just under $6 billion worth of American waste was sent to China last year to be remade into new products. Those products were then sent to the United States and other markets.
Waste recycling businesses have profited from low shipping costs for empty containers returning to China after the ships had unloaded their goods on the U.S. West Coast.
Today, very little waste is being shipped to China. The reason: China’s decision to ban many forms of foreign trash, from mixed papers to unwanted cloth. The ban went into effect on January 1.
The result of the measure can be seen at a recycling center in Anaheim, California. Its grounds are filled with 2,400 bales of mixed paper that the owners had planned to send to China.
The recycling center belongs to Republic Services, a company based in Phoenix, Arizona.
The unwanted paper is a result of an unusual 12-day backlog, notes James Castro, who heads the factory. No one knows where all that paper will go.
China’s government has banned imports of mixed paper, as well as some plastics, metals and other forms of waste. In April, the ban was expanded to include more metals and chemical waste. Those restrictions will go into effect later this year.
A ban on additional kinds of waste, including that from wood products, is being targeted for the end of 2019.
Less polluted waste
China has also set lower contamination levels for the waste it does accept. Now it accepts only 0.5 percent contaminants, down for most materials from 1.5 percent.
That has slowed the sorting process, said Richard Coupland, a vice president at Republic.
Additionally, the ban has led to a large drop in prices for recyclable goods, such as mixed paper.
One year ago, bales of mixed paper, like those stored outside the Anaheim recycling center, would have been worth $100 a ton. Today, each ton is worth "less than $5” or less than zero in some markets, Coupland noted. He added that much of the industry's backlog may end up in landfills.
North of Anaheim, in the city of Azusa, another Waste Management center also is dealing with changing rules for its workers and their sorting machines. They use magnets and other equipment to organize the waste. Now those systems do not meet the new levels and must be changed.
Adam Minter wrote a book called "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade." He explains the problems facing recycling companies.
"Recycling is about manufacturing and if somebody doesn't want to use those raw materials," then there is no reason for recycling programs.
He said that China's waste ban started as a desire to clean up the environment. But he added that nationalism and political control are also a part of the move.
'Shockwaves around the world'
Some environmentalists are happy about the waste ban.
Greenpeace East Asia plastic campaigner Liu Hua said it will send "shockwaves around the world.” He said it will force countries to examine their policies about waste, especially environmental contaminants like plastics.
Joshua Goldstein of the University of Southern California is an expert on China. He told VOA the ban may cause social problems there.
Goldstein has studied China’s 3 million to 5 million small recycling businesses. He says they make small amounts of money by sorting through trash and selling materials that can be reused.
"It also raised 3 to 5 million households out of poverty."
Goldstein said China will find it difficult to create businesses as profitable as the small recyclers.
Companies are also looking for new markets. More recyclable waste from the United States will now go to India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. However, industry experts say shipping costs are high and demand in those countries is limited.
Because prices have dropped, there is hope for increased use for waste such as mixed paper in the United States.
Cleaning up waste
Brent Bell, vice president of recycling operations for Waste Management, said his company is trying to clean up its waste to meet the new levels China and other countries are demanding.
Bell said his company is working to educate Americans about cleaner recycling, adding it’s “something we all missed as an industry."
"Whether we're shipping material to China, to India, or even to Louisiana, our customers all want to make sure the material is as clean as possible," he said.
Republic's Coupland said the waste and recycling industry needs to work with communities to find a new business model to replace one that no longer works. This could make the cost of waste collection higher.
And China may change its policy again, noted Joshua Goldstein.
Paper waste is hard to replace, he says. China may be forced to change its bans if its manufacturers need raw materials.
The economics of the recycling industry are changing, he added.
I’m Susan Shand.
VOA’S Mike O’Sullivan reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow edited this story.
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Words in This Story
recycle – v. to use waste to create new products
bale – n. a large amount of something that has been tied tightly together
backlog – n. a large amount of work that is waiting to get done
contamination – n. something that has been made dirty or impure by adding something harmful, like a chemical or poison
raw - adj. in its natural state