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How China is disrupting the global recycling industry

Posting in Environment

China shook-up the global recycling industry when it implemented a new policy that aims to eliminate contaminated and poorly-sorted shipments of recyclables.

The problem? China, which imported more than $11 billion of strap materials and waste from the United States in 2011, is now more particular about which scrap materials it will accept, including no longer accepting plastics in the #3-7 categories and specific plastic items like disposable plastic coffee cup lids and PVC pipes. China uses these materials in manufacturing, but has decided to strengthen its import regulations because of environmental concerns.

"Operation Green Fence," as the policy is called, was thought to be coming to an end this fall, but now, as Quartz points out, the policy looks to be here to stay. As Gwynn Guilford reports, the policy has disrupted the recycling industry causing companies to rethink business-as-usual.

Historically, higher labor costs and environmental safety standards made processing scrap into raw materials much more expensive in the US than in China. So the US never developed much capacity or technology to sort and process harder-to-break down plastics like #3 through #7.

Green Fence might be a chance to change that, says Mike Biddle, CEO of California-based recycling company MBA Polymers. “China’s Green Fence offers a real opportunity to the US government and recycling industry to step up its efforts on recycling and catalyze a strong domestic recycling market in the US,” Biddle said at a recent webinar on Green Fence.

Of course, it's not just the United States that's impacted. As The Guardian points out, the policy also has a major impact in Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong.

If this all prompts recycling innovation, then we're better off.  The problem is that innovation doesn't happen overnight and in the meantime much of the world's recyclable plastic is going to landfills, no matter what bin it leaves the curb in.

Read more: Quartz

Photo: Flickr/baselactionnetwork

— By on September 16, 2013, 3:24 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure