Officially, yes, it's the biggest single product. But combined, the U.S. exports more scrap and waste to China than any other single product -- $11.31 billion in 2011. Growth of waste exports has been quick and steep. In 1997, only $182 million worth of waste went to China. But expect that growth to come to a screeching halt.
That's because China no longer wants all that U.S. waste, as Gwynn Guilford reports at Quartz:
[H]ints are emerging that American cities and the companies that sell trash are in for a rude awakening. A recent sign of this comes from Oregon, where truckloads of plastic are piling up at recycling depots because Chinese buyers cancelled their orders, as Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
And it’s not just plastic from Oregon. American waste recycling companies are starting to panic. “What I’m hearing from folks in the industry, it’s that just that nothing is going,” the industry insider says. “[China's] not taking anything anymore. It’s a greenwall.”
More specifically, China's implemented a policy called Operation Green Fence. The policy cracks down on the amount of contaminants that can be included in a bale of waste, including unwashed plastics and other banned materials, leading to "severe recycling market confusion worldwide."
It's hitting the recycling industry especially hard. Global shipments of recovered paper to China are down 18.4 percent. And prices for recovered materials are dropping.
It's easy to forget that recycling is an industry. As one industry insider told Quartz, "The public doesn’t realize this, but recycling is made possible by technology and markets—they think it’s just a matter of technology. And we don’t have strong enough markets in the US.”
So happens next? One industry source says the initiative will end in November. But for now, other countries could take what the U.S. currently ships to China. Vietnam is a potential source. In the short term it could mean a lot of plastics just end up in the landfill. But in the long term it could lead to more innovation in the industry.
For now, it's just a mess.