The Dirty Truth Is Your Recycling May Actually Go to Landfills

“I’ve been in garbage all my life. This is unprecedented.”

Julian Stratenschulte/DPA via ZUMA Press

This story was originally published by HuffPostIt appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Americans recycle millions of tons of trash every year. We trust that the items we toss in the blue bin won’t end up in a landfill. We hope this stuff is repurposed and turned into reusable goods―but a lot of it isn’t getting recycled at all. 

Two-thirds of US states are facing a recycling crisis of our own making. For months, mountains of plastic, paper and other materials have been piling up at recycling facilities across the nation. Recyclables are ending up in landfills en masse. Some municipalities—from Sacramento, California, to Hooksett, New Hampshire—have canceled or significantly curtailed their recycling programs, leaving residents with no choice but to throw their recyclables in the trash. 

To put it in the words of a waste manager in Bakersfield, California, the situation is “not just a little bad, it is terrible.”

“I’ve been in garbage all my life. This is unprecedented,” Kevin Barnes, the city’s solid waste director, told The Bakersfield Californian earlier this month. “I think there’s been nothing in history this severe for the markets. So we’re in uncharted waters here.”

The first signs of trouble came in January when China, which had long served as the world’s de facto wastebasket, banned the importation of several categories of recyclable waste. For decades, China had bought massive shipments of recyclable plastics, paper, cardboard and other materials from countries around the world.

It had been a win-win situation. On the one hand, China needed a steady supply of recyclable waste to feed its flourishing manufacturing sector. And on the other, countries like the US, Canada, Germany, the UK and Japan lacked the recycling facilities and manpower that China had―and they desperately needed a destination for their growing quantity of garbage.

About a year ago, however, China abruptly announced its intention to close its borders to this trash influx. The country notified the World Trade Organization that it would be banning the import of 24 categories of solid waste, including several kinds of scrap plastic and mixed paper. It also demanded that other waste materials, like cardboard and scrap metal, have only 0.5 percent contamination from food and other sources―a standard that American recyclers have said is “impossible” to meet.

The immediate global impact of the new Chinese restrictions, enforced on Jan. 1, was staggering. “It was a huge shock—a tsunami for the industry,” said Arnaud Brunet, head of the Bureau of International Recycling, speaking from Brussels on Wednesday. “When the biggest market for recyclables progressively shuts the door to imports, you can expect the global industry will be under stress.”

Prior to its new policy, China had been processing at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals. Between 1992 and 2016, China accepted more than 110 million tons of plastic scrap from countries around the globe, or about 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste. A recent study predicts that about 120 million tons of plastic waste will be displaced worldwide by 2030 because of China’s policy change. 

The United States has long been one of the biggest exporters of trash to China. Of the estimated 66 million tons of material that Americans recycle each year, about one-third used to be exported—a majority of which had been bound for Chinese shores.

Since January, however, local and state governments, together with domestic recycling companies, have had to figure out new destinations for all this garbage.

At least 38 states have experienced “noticeable” impacts since the policy took effect, according to Waste Dive, a D.C.-based publisher of waste industry news that’s been documenting the ban’s effects with this online tracker.

At least 10 states—including California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Oregon—have been “heavily” affected. A waste coordinator in Alaska, another of the hardest-hit states, described the shake-up as “Armageddon for recycling.”

“At this point, there is no state in the country that has not felt at least something because of the ban,” Waste Dive reporter Cole Rosengren told HuffPost

Recyclables Get Dumped