This Is Plastics: How China’s Ban on Plastic Imports Affects Recyclers in the U.S.


How China’s Ban on Plastic Imports Affects Recyclers in the U.S.

Before 2018, U.S. companies shipped a majority of their scrap plastic materials to China for processing and recycling. Now that China has severely limited these imports, the U.S. recycling industry has a huge opportunity to expand capacity and reduce waste.


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Consumers in the U.S. might not have been aware it was happening, but prior to 2018, a great deal of the plastic materials they put in their blue bins were collected, bundled up and shipped to China. Once there, a lot of those materials were processed, recycled and remanufactured into new products—some of which made their way back into the U.S.

So if you’re keeping track, the bottle you recycled in 2017 might’ve traveled 8,000 miles to China, been processed and remanufactured there, then traveled another 8,000 miles back to the U.S., where you might’ve purchased it in a new product stamped with “Made in China.”

If that seems a little backward to you, it is—or at least, it was.

Beginning on New Year’s Day in 2018, China officially closed its borders to imports of 24 types of solid waste—scrap plastics among them. This new policy—known in China as National Sword—rippled throughout the U.S., which now had more material than could ever be recycled, or even put into landfills. It’s led to many conversations within the recycling, plastics, aluminum and paper industries about how to change global recycling practices to account for the new paradigm.

Graphic image of a boat painted with the American flag facing a boat painted with the Chinese flag

What challenges did the import ban create?
Some of the materials previously shipped to China had limited demand from the domestic market. That’s why they went to China or several of the other Southeast Asian nations that had thriving markets for recycled material; it was more profitable for materials recovery facilities (MRFs), manufacturers and plastics recyclers to send these materials halfway around the world than it was to keep them, find a buyer or processor locally, or send them to a landfill. With National Sword in place, those MRFs and recyclers have to find new partners and build a new supply chain to preserve the value of these materials without involving China.

What opportunities did the import ban create?
Since the ban took effect, there have been numerous announcements about investments to build out domestic processing capabilities—both from U.S. companies and Chinese, which were also impacted by the ban. For example, six recyclers from China announced investments in new facilities in the U.S. to process the materials they previously received in China. These facilities will lead to new jobs in the U.S. and new markets for companies that collect these materials to sell them domestically instead of shipping abroad.

National Sword also presents the U.S. with an opportunity to rebuild its supply chain so domestic companies comply with the needs of domestic customers. Demand for plastics in the U.S. continues to increase, but the U.S. industry has had difficulty meeting those needs because of a lack of capability and reprocessing capacity. With China closing its doors to much of the country’s scrap material, U.S. companies can step up to fill in the gaps.

What has happened since the import ban went into effect?
In 2018, the plastics supply chain engaged with and invested in recovery solutions in a way that it never had before, both directly and indirectly in response to the import ban. This includes an increase in commitments from brand owners to use higher levels of recycled content.

A few brands include:

New business relationships have been formed to drive the creation of new technologies that offer solutions beyond mechanical recycling. This can help increase profitability for recyclers, processors and other manufacturers. Take a look:

Collectively, these investments in innovations mean we are growing the portfolio of technologies to manage plastic scrap, expanding the types of plastics we can process and the end markets they can go into. Maintaining, and even increasing, the array of plastic items our local municipalities are collecting through their curbside and drop-off recycling programs will help ensure that there won’t be any disruptions in supply.

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