Why Recycling Doesn’t Work Anymore

Photo credit to Davis Klavins.

In 2018, China imposed a ban on the importation of foreign waste. Not long after, recycling industries across the world collapsed. While not necessarily a ban per se, China’s new standards, announced in a letter to the WTO in 2017, are simply too high for many countries’ recycling facilities to meet. As a result, recycling systems are facing immense backlog globally as they struggle to find new means of disposal.

“…24 types of solid waste were banned, higher standards were set regarding what quality of waste was acceptable, and China proclaimed that it would no longer serve as the “world’s garbage dump.”

 “It became a drug almost for this country – and in North America – that ‘Oh, China will take it, China will take it,’” commented Dale Schmidt, manager of a Saskatoon recycling plant, regarding Canada’s response to this ban.

 To give context, China had been importing nearly half of the world’s plastic waste since 1992. This was essentially the way in which many developed countries were “recycling,” sending their materials abroad for disposal while turning a profit in the process. Canada alone was the 10th top exporter.

Soon, China became the world’s leading manufacturer, pumping out masses of manufactured goods made using imported recyclables. Coming from countries such as the US, Germany, Japan, and Australia, these imports were supplying China with the raw materials necessary for large-scale production, thus satisfying global demands for inexpensive commodities. This, combined with the huge supply of cheap labour and lax environmental policies, made China a manufacturing powerhouse.

This was essentially the way in which many developed countries were “recycling,” sending their materials abroad for disposal while turning a profit in the process.

Eventually, though, environmental degradation and human health concerns caught up with economic gains. Shipments of foreign recyclables were being found contaminated with hazardous waste, extraction of valuable parts was polluting local villages, and ill-equipped waste management systems were failing to maintain environmental integrity as foreign waste continued to arrive. These conditions persisted until China, realizing that recycling the world’s waste was imposing a net deficit on the country’s economy, announced their National Sword policy. As a result, 24 types of solid waste were banned, higher standards were set regarding what quality of waste was acceptable, and China proclaimed that it would no longer serve as the “world’s garbage dump.”

Worldwide effects were catastrophic. Recycling became a financial burden as the market for “recyclables” collapsed, plummeting the prices of previously profitable materials and raising the costs of labour and equipment management. With the world’s largest buyer gone, exporters searched for methods to incur the least costs where they had once operated to make the most revenues. These efforts included shipping waste to other countries, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, with the latter seeing an import increase of 1370% in the ensuing months. However, lacking the same capacity as China, these countries were soon overwhelmed as well and consequently imposed their own bans.

As a result, countries are being forced to find alternative methods of disposal. Some send their recycling to incinerators, burning their plastics and textiles and releasing toxic fumes in the process. Such is the case in Chester City, Pennsylvania, where resulting air pollution is driving up incidences of asthma and various cancers.

“Even areas that have decided to store waste are struggling as they realize that stockpiling is an unsustainable solution”

Other cities are instead burying their recycling in landfills or stopping programs entirely, refusing items that, for many, have long been associated with the blue bin. This includes glass containers, milk cartons, aluminum food cans, and single use cups. Even areas that have decided to store waste are struggling as they realize that stockpiling is an unsustainable solution, especially as truckloads continue to arrive and materials begin to degrade, rendering them ineligible for recycling anyway. Although provinces such as British Columbia are finding ways to mitigate the effects of China’s ban, true success is proving to be dubious and unreliable.

As for what solution would be best to pursue, many countries are at a loss. Some are advocating for multinational corporations to be held responsible for the disposal of their own excessive packaging. Others are pushing for national policies that enforce a “circular” loop instead of the currently ubiquitous linear stream. Most are saying that this is a wake-up call, and that countries must start being independent by reinvesting in their own recycling infrastructure. No matter the solution, though, it is clear that action must be taken soon, lest the very purpose of recycling be thrown into question.

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