Since 2017, the Chinese government has been buying less of the world’s trash, forcing Western nations to look for alternatives to offload their recycling. In April of this year, the Chinese Government amended its restrictions requiring Chinese Agencies to move towards importing “zero” solid waste.
Since the 1980s several hundred million tons of paper, plastic, electronic waste and scrap metal has made its way across the Pacific and into China for recycling purposes. The recycling market in China was booming and it was more than willing to pay for other countries plastic trash so that it could be recycled into new products. However, things changed three years ago when the Chinese Government noticed that a lot of the imported waste was contaminated, which made it difficult and expensive to recycle, causing them to crack down on the importation of solid waste. Due to the crack down, much of the waste that was too hard or too expensive to recycle ended up being illegally smuggled into China and dumped, causing pollution on land and in waterways.
A year after the restriction on plastics, Beijing further aimed to block imports of all waste products that could be sourced domestically. This left many recycling programs, especially those in the Western U.S., to send their output to local landfills, incinerators, or stockpiles in warehouses near the source.
The trade industry was forced to find a new destination like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand to handle the waste China had previously accepted. Unfortunately, those countries are starting to cut back on trash imports as well. In China’s new restriction revisions from April this year, ocean carriers will face fines up to $700,000 for waste smuggling while making them jointly liable for infractions occurring after September 1, 2020. Before the revisions, carriers were only responsible for the return of the solid waste to the country of origin if the importer could not be identified.
In response to the restrictions, ocean carriers MSC and Hapag-Lloyd have limited their involvement in shipping solid waste to China by no longer accepting waste bound for China effective June 1 and September 1 respectively. Currently, nearly 700,000 tons of U.S. waste is looking for a home other than landfills every year. Recycling experts say it's a time of reckoning for their industry and that wealthy countries need to stop exporting to countries that can't handle the waste. This leaves municipalities looking to expand their own recycling facilities or to create better ways to ensure recyclable materials are free of contaminants so other countries can accept them.
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