Starting last month, China began banning some imports of 24 types of materials, including unsorted paper, low-grade polyethylene terephthalate used in plastic bottles, and more. Officials have complained that much of the recycling they receive from overseas has not been properly cleaned, or is mixed with non-recyclable materials. This new wave of bans is a push to protect their environment and improve public health.
Because of this, many US recycling sorting facilities have had to stockpile their bales of recyclables collected from residential and commercial sectors, and many are trying to export to other Asian countries who will take the material, including Malaysia and Vietnam.
What can we do?
Instead of assuming recycling is the magic bullet. We need to realize that while recycling is better than sending material to the landfill, often that material is downgraded in the recycling process. For example, paper can only be recycled about 5 times before the quality is too low to process into another material.
REDUCE and REUSE are much more effective than RECYCLING. Use less, and whatever you do use, opt for a very durable option that can be reused, repaired, and reused over and over again.
We also should be demanding manufacturers to design packaging to be less wasteful (even plastic-free). They should also be encouraged to incorporate domestic recycled plastic feedstock into their products to grow the local market for recycling manufacturing so we don't rely so heavily on moving our recyclables to other countries to deal with.
In the end, it's all one world and if dirty recycling is bad for some countries dealing with our exports, then it's bad for everyone.