Single Stream Recyclables at a recycling center in New Hampshire [Image: Wikimedia Commons/MarkBuckawicki]

The Chinese Market Matters for US Recycling


China’s recycling program used to be responsible for processing the bulk of the world’s recyclable materials, but amid its own environmental and pollution concerns, China heavily restricted its import of mixed paper and most plastics by the end of 2017.

The United States has struggled to fill the gap ever since. Since 2017, exports of plastic to China have decreased by 99.1%, with mixed paper exports decreasing by 33.8%. While the United States tries to turn to Southeast Asian markets to make up the difference, the supply far outweighs the demand, and many of those countries are starting to restrict their imports as well to try and stem the avalanche of scrap plastic and paper.

While the effects of China’s severe reduction in recyclable material purchases are felt in all 50 states, the largest impact tends to be in states with older infrastructure or states with many small cities.

States like Missouri have tried a variety of potential solutions for these issues. Some counties and municipalities elected to suspend or scrap their recycling programs, while others have tried to convert away from single source recycling. This recycling method, which has all varieties of recyclable materials dumped into the ‘big blue bins’, is the least effective due to the higher chances of material contaminating each other. One Missouri Company, Meridian Waste, is trying to switch to dual-stream collection. This would separate plastic and metal from mixed papers, and completely drop glass from the recycling system.

In New Hampshire there is more of the same; price increases have forced many counties to abandon their programs. This is especially the case for cities with many residents living under the poverty line, like Franklin. Before, the city sold its recycling to China for $6 a ton, letting them break even on the costs. Without that steady drain on the supply, the cost of recycling has skyrocketed to $125 per ton, compared to a $68 per ton cost to simply incinerate it.

Even large states like California have struggled with the change. Many counties experienced recycling cost hikes, and massive drops in revenue. In San Diego, recycling revenue totaled $3 million in the previous year, but now the city is looking at a projected drop to $600,000. Other recycling companies in the state have experienced or expect to experience losses as well. San Mateo MRF projects a $4 million operational loss through the fiscal year.

The United States and China are intertwined in more ways than meet the eye. With the Chinese market closed to cities across the United States, it will take careful planning and conscientious changes to keep recycling programs running.

Madeline Wiltse is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a first-year graduate student studying American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University, and has a Bachelor's in International Studies with a region focus on Japan from the University of Washington.