China erects “green fence” to keep dirty recycling out

| July 2, 2013

It’s the dirty little secret of the recycling world: North America is very far from being a zero-waste continent, and the hidden underpinning of the recycling market here is the ability to sell what we can’t recycle to overseas markets, foremost among them China. There, with relaxed or non-existent safety regulations and vastly lower wages, workers disassemble our dirty recycling – castoff electronics and other refuse – and separate out the components for profitable reclamation.

At least that’s how it used to go. China, it seems, has had enough of our junk.

Electronic waste waiting to be recycled

Thousands of tons of e-waste are shipped from the U.S. to China each year. From Inf-Lite Teacher.

From now to November, China is united in Operation Green Fence, heralding more vigorous inspection of suspected dirty recycling shipments, turning back offending loads, enforcing old laws that had been overlooked with a wink and a handshake, and refusing new contracts. This is huge news for exporters, and in turn for everyone who relies on them, meaning all of us.

According to Quartz, “For more than five years, scrap and trash have consistently been the US’s biggest export (paywall), for which China is the number one customer, and the market has doubled in size since 2006.” Now China has banned the importation of unwashed plastics, which were illegal already but not enforced. They’ve also banned the residential pickup of such material within China. Together, the measures are meant to give Chinese plastic recycling plants a chance to catch up and process what they already have.

Electrical recycling label

From’s electronics department.

According to Wang Jiwei, vice president and secretary-general of the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association Recycling Metal Branch (CMRA), the initiative is designed to have a chilling effect on those who would flout clean recycling laws. If a shipper is caught with dangerous or mislabeled loads, China will “strictly examine the import application and [consider whether] to approve the import license,” a threat which shipping companies and exporters would do well to take seriously.

This leaves the U.S. with the problem of what to do with its dirty recyclables in the meantime, while exporters hastily retool for a more-stringent regulatory environment. Having had Chinese buyers to rely on has meant that the recycling industry has become dependent on that market to profitably offload its plastics, electronics, juice boxes, and other materials. There is no equivalent domestic market, nor can one be created before serious economic repercussions are felt; building recycling plants takes time and capital investment one is unlikely to find in the depths of a recession. And the whole reason we need Chinese markets for mixed shipments of materials is that we have failed to sort it correctly in the first place. Automated sorters exist, but are expensive and not yet as efficient as human sorters. Human sorters, of course, get paid better wages in the US than in China, and that adds even more to the cost of recycling.

e-waste in a shipping container

Without China to ship its e-waste to, it’s unclear how North America is going to cope with its own leftovers. From Mosman Council.

We can start by making sure that we sort our recyclables properly at the household level. Every step in the supply chain of recyclable materials can help reduce waste and ensure that everything that can be recovered and reused is, rather than ending up clogging up a landfill. For now, America has no choice.

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Category: Electronics, Recycling programs

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