Curbside garbage and recycling pickup tends to seem a bit magical, with waste removed and sent away without most consumers ever seeing where it goes. But many U.S. cities are struggling with an overload of recyclables and may soon change their pickup programs, if they haven’t already. The reason behind that big shift has to do with pollution in China and how the global recycling market disproportionately impacts other nations that buy imported paper and plastic refuse and recyclables.
For nearly two decades, China has taken in extraordinary quantities of the world’s trash and relied on cheap labor to process it. More specifically, China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, at which point the country began accepting paper and plastic recycling from around the world, according to a February episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible. And according to a new report from Vox, by 2016, China was importing 40 million metric tons of recyclable products every year.
Then in 2018, due to vast pollution issues, China put an end to the practice of importing so much junk, a ban on foreign recyclables the media sometimes called “National Sword.”
The U.S. used to make a fair bit of money from selling off its trash and recyclable goods. But the real issue is what the country will do now, with its recyclable products piling up. There is no national recycling policy in the U.S., which means cities are without a plan to work together to manage domestic waste.
As a result, hundreds of cities nationwide have begun scaling back or altogether scrapping with their recycling programs. Trade publication WasteDive maintains a comprehensive tracker of exactly how this policy impacts each of the 50 U.S. states. Its examples cross cities of all size and demographic and illustrate the breadth of the problem.
One WasteDive example includes the more than 30,000 recycling customers of Republic Services in Indianapolis seeing their bills double in 2018, up to the maximum amount allowable by law. Meanwhile in states such as Wyoming, cities and counties are stockpiling recyclable materials until market conditions improve.
All of this is leading to even more extreme, longer-term effects. Vox points to an alarming study published in the journal Science Advances that says China’s ban on imported recyclables will lead to a pileup of more than 111 metric tons of garbage by the year 2030.