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As China Changes the Rules Of The Recycling Game can we keep up

Waste paper has been one of the most heavily imported American goods into China for years (measured by volume). The Chinese have been accepting American waste paper and sorting it by hand for decades – the richer countries needed to ship it somewhere that the workers are poor enough to sort the waste paper for wages low enough for the industry to turn a profit, China solved this problem.

Waste paper to be shipped off and sorted before being recycled.



The waste paper that was shipped over to China was generally heavily contaminated, if it the paper is too contaminated then it cannot be recycled and ends up being dumped or burnt with the general rubbish. The sorting of the recyclable paper is a hard job to get an automated robot to do so as it stands it is still a job that requires human participation.

Waste paper has not been the only thing the western countries have been shipping abroad to China – huge amounts of Aluminium and an variety of different types of plastic also go in the containers.

From the 1980s until recently this system was working very well. China’s rapidly growing economy was shipping out goods across the world and instead of the containers returning to China empty they would be stuffed to the brim with waste ready for China to recycle. Every day roughly 4,000 shipping containers full of recyclables would go from the US alone to take recyclable waste to China to be sorted.

As China has become richer their government is pushing for a greener China and they have decided they no longer wish to be the waste dumping ground of the Western world. In 2017 China announced the ‘National Sword Policy’ in which China has banned 24 types of solid waste, including various plastics and unsorted paper. They have also dropped the acceptable waste contamination levels to no more than 1% with some waste types going as low as 0.3%. This was a huge change to the way things were as it used to be normal to have contamination rates of around 40%! Many of the new requirements the recycling facilities in the western world have been unable to meet, so the waste is rejected and sent back. Some recycling facilities have huge build ups of recyclable materials while they’re waiting for something to be arranged.

From this change to their policy China has refused incredible amounts of contaminated waste and now governments across the world have been struggling to find places to send it. Governments seem unable to get the contamination of their waste to the accepted levels in part due to the education of the general population of what should and should not be recycled and also due to the recycling facilities not preparing the recyclables well enough before being shipped in the containers. Now that China has changed their policy should the governments simply find another country that is poor enough to accept their poorly sorted waste and they’ll take it without too much trouble? Can they raise taxes to pay higher wages to the workers who will sort it? Perhaps another course of action is needed…

Countries such as Indonesia have began to start taking more of the worlds plastic waste since China started refusing more and more. But this is not the answer we should not be sending our rubbish abroad for them to sort out, the change needs to come from us. Education on what we should and shouldn’t do, education on how to decrease the amount we throw out or recycle. We can do this by talking and teaching each other or by programs to help, raising the publics awareness is key to the matter but then so is making large plastic and waste producing companies to change their packaging and methods.

An array of plastics found on a beach organised by colour.

One way of reducing the amount of rubbish we create is to follow the 5Rs. You can read our article about The 5Rs. The 5Rs is an important personal step to take but it is not scratching the surface of what really needs to be done world wide. When following the 5Rs there is a reason and order behind the 5Rs – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle. Refusing to take something so it culminates that demand is reduced and production falls is important as is the idea that something can be reused or repurposed. Repurposing a glass jar as another food storage container makes much more sense than all the energy involved in transporting, sorting, crushing, melting, and then forming a new one just to refill with another foodstuff.

For years people have been scavenging for scrap, finding used objects to use again but this was due to the market incentive and cost of raw materials as they were too valuable to throw away due to scarcity of resources. The Romans used to write on wax tablets which they would then wipe clean and reform the wax to be perfect to write on again, they also used to melt down bronze statues to sculpt new ones to save on the labour and resource intensive process involved in mining, refining and smelting the ores to make new bronze. 1,000 years ago Japan used to pulp used paper in order to renew it and make more paper.

It is only a recent thought process that things should be reused because it is the right thing to do. This thought process still has a way to go as it hasn’t penetrated everywhere yet, many people and businesses don’t even see the issue with single use plastics and some people struggle to comprehend the idea of recycling bins. It is a daily occurrence that people continue to place general trash bags into recyclables bins or even into the compostable bins with little regard to what happens after. Out of sight, out of mind.

A misplaced bag full of general waste in the wrong bin, clearly the “owner” could see this was the compostable waste. Was this due to indifference or lack of education?

Back in 1955 Time Magazine published its celebratory headline page “Throwaway Living” the idea was that by being able to simply throw away everything then it would save time “Disposable items cut down household chores”

Three children tossing paper cups, plates, aluminum foil pans, lunch trays, straws and napkins through the air illustrating the usefulness of disposable dishes.

Why wash up when you can simply toss all your plastic cutlery, plates and cups away and even the BBQ is disposable…

This was good news for the companies who were running deposit schemes which were common at the time, people were now able to purchase items made cheaper and they would simply toss them after they had finished. The companies to operate lower costs per unit and wouldn’t need to recover the containers as they previously had. The glass bottles that were common in the fizzy drinks industry could now be replaced with plastic bottles which were cheaper to make and simply trashed after use. This moved the responsibility of trash from the producer to the consumer who was now in charge of what to do with their trash. Many elected to do nothing but put it in a bin or on the floor.

As deposit schemes dwindled and fell out of fashion, recycling was no longer to be done for financial and cost reasons it became the responsibility of local governments who often only offered basic recycling facilities for people who were motivated enough to make the effort to use them. Individual responsibility was now abound and recycling was now about making ourselves feel better than for commercial reasons.

Research has been carried out that finds that people who know they can recycle the items they use tend to act and be more wasteful. The research paper from Boston University can be found below.

If recycling was cost free then it would be easy but obviously it is not.

The economist Michael Munger argues that it is a bad idea to leave waste disposal to the free market. If you were to charge people the actual cost of what it costs to safely dispose of their rubbish then many more people would be tempted to dump it illegally instead, this is much worse in terms of both environmental damage and cost to clean up the mess. This happened in the UK when the local council decided that a recycling centre needed to started charging for people to dump their rubbish and recyclables. The council found that the people were either driving into the next county to get rid of their rubbish for free or they were illegally fly tipping their rubbish. The costs for the council actually increased due to their added expenses on cleaning up the fly tipping.

If we charge people they chuck it, if we use taxes to subsidise the cost of waste disposal, we risk incentivising the behavour the 1955 times article spoke highly of.

How do we convince people that their waste should be recycled (as a minimum)? One solution would be moral persuasion, as in a series of adverts aiming to highlight the problems with disposing of it as we are, educating people to the positives and negatives of the situation. This also creates issues as spoken about in this article for the US think tank The Cato Institute.

Michael Munger speaks about comparing the costs and benefits of recycling each different type of waste that we throw – glass bottles, tin cans, single use plastics etc against the other possible ways of disposal.

Modern, well-designed landfills are nowadays pretty safe, and are able to harness the methane that they produce for electricity.

Along with this modern waste incinerators can be a clean-ish source of power production but still not recommended.

If we treat recycling as a moral issue and question then it will bring us full circle back to the issue of China’s recycling policy. Reducing the amount of different things recycled would allow for easier sorting and become more efficient at the things that we actually aim to recycle but this most definitely feels like a step backwards and a step in the wrong direction.

Taiwan – which was onced dubbed “garbage island” has now reversed this and has one of the highest recycling rates in the world. Taiwan has managed to hit recycling rate of around 55% which has lead to wide spread praise. Bravo Taiwan!

How on earth did Taiwan achieve this? They ensured that waste disposal was high in the minds of the public consciousness. If Taiwan are able to achieve such a turn around then why can’t everyone else? In short they could, if the right steps were taken and money was spent.

Can we use a systemic model that allows regulators to encourage new business models which use ideas such as bottle deposit schemes which make manufactures have incentives and helps their logistics if they recycle their products. Scotland will be soon introducing a scheme that allows consumers to return various forms of plastic drinks bottles, glass and cans for 20p per item. Excellent!

The idea and phrase “the circular economy” is banded around as a solution to the problem, it basically means that everything follows the 5Rs and a very minimum amount of things end up in the landfills. You can read about the circular economy here.

Maybe we can rely on technology to get us out of this mess we have created, one UK firm is claiming to be able to turn mixed plastic products – which are notoriously difficult to recycle – back in to the oil they came from, it then resells this oil to the industry which can then use the oil as fuel or to male more plastic – hardly an answer but it is better than the plastics ending up in landfill or finding its way into the rivers and landscape that surrounds us affecting both humans and animals alike. One major issue is that it still uses plastic and doesn’t aim to decrease our dependancy on it, if we can simply turn it back into the oil it came from then why not use that single use plastic item that might just end up in nature.

Other technological solutions have been trialed such as smart trash cans in Australia. The idea is that you throw in your rubbish and the machine will then sort it accordingly into the correct recycling category. This coupled with huge efforts to reduce the amount of items we use, reduce the amount of things we throw away and the state of the art sorting facilities that are using robots, lasers, magnets and air jets to sort out the recyclables into their different groups. These efforts can have some effect but it doesn’t resolve the issues that lie beneath, it merely deals with the issues that are created through plastic use.

None of the ideas that are put forward can yet compete with the cost of a low-cost labourer but hopefully by countries choosing to close off this option it will spur the industry and governments into new and exciting innovations that are so desperately needed.

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