Exports of plastic waste, parings, scrap from G7 countries ('000 tonnes), before (left) and after (right) China's 'National Sword' policy shut its doors to imports of recycled material. Graphic: David Blood, Liz Faunce, and Aendrew Rininsland / Financial Times

By Leslie Hook and John Reed
24 October 2018

(Financial Times) – As Robert Reed examines a mountain of trash piled three storeys high, a thin white plastic bag catches his eye. He fishes it out and holds it up. “That is a problem plastic,” he says gravely. “These get stuck in the machines, and there is no market for them.” He gives it a little wave and lets it float back down on to the heap.

We are standing inside the largest recycling facility in San Francisco, which takes in household waste, sorts it and produces tidy bales of material at the end. Broken glass crunches underfoot as Reed, a 20-year veteran of the industry, explains with pride that this plant, owned by local waste-management company Recology, is the most advanced of its kind on the West Coast, using lasers, magnets and air jets to process 750 tonnes each day.

“See all this paper?” he says, approaching the mound of waste and gesturing to an Amazon box. “We’ve started to get a lot more of this because of all the online shopping.” Some of the materials sorted here are valuable, such as aluminium cans, steel and cardboard. But others are worthless, like coffee-cup lids or black plastic food trays.

As we reach the end of the sortation centre, bale after bale of sorted plastic looms up. From here it will be sold to processors, often in Asia. China was by far the biggest customer last year.

More than 270 million tonnes of waste are recycled across the world each year, according to the World Bank — equivalent to the weight of 740 Empire State buildings.

Since the introduction of kerbside household recycling in the 1980s, recycling has been promoted as the environmental answer to humanity’s growing amounts of rubbish. It has also developed into a $200bn industry globally, according to the Bureau of International Recycling. […]

On 31 December 2017, China, previously the centre of the global recycling trade, abruptly shut its doors to imports of recycled material, citing the fact that large amounts of the waste were “dirty” or “hazardous” and thus a threat to the environment. The prices of plastic scrap collapsed, as did the price of low-grade paper. Suddenly, the lucrative trade that had sprung up shipping recyclables around the world was in crisis.

The new policy, called the “National Sword”, was so drastic that when it was first announced many people in the industry did not believe it would actually be implemented. China and Hong Kong went from buying 60 per cent of the plastic waste exported by G7 countries during the first half of 2017, to taking less than 10 per cent during the same period a year later. “It really changed the world, in a way,” says Reed. “China was the world’s biggest customer for paper and plastic.”

Using publicly available trade data, the FT has traced the exports of plastic and paper scrap from G7 countries, revealing a dramatic increase in the flows of waste into south-east Asia following the China ban. More than three dozen industry executives, policy makers, scrap traders and environmental advocates across the US, Europe, and Asia were interviewed for this piece.

The investigation found an industry undergoing unprecedented disruption, with the very purpose of recycling thrown into question. […]

“When we talk about recycling, the concept is good and the objectives are good,” says Penchom Saetang, the head of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand. “But if the recycling industry is good, why do America, Europe, Korea, and Japan have to export to other countries? Can you answer me that?” [more]

Why the world’s recycling system stopped working

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