How China’s Green Fence Is Effecting The U.S. Trash Trade

China's Green FenceBig changes in China are making a serious impact on the trash and recycling trade in the U.S..

Many people are surprised to find out that the majority of the plastic, paper, and aluminum that we separate from the trash here In America gets shipped to China to be recycled. It’s a large part of our country’s trade economy and was worth more than $11 billion in 2011, making it our top export to China that year. Large Chinese corporations and mom-and-pop shops alike buy the recyclables we toss out and use them to manufacture all kinds of products that they, in turn, sell and distribute worldwide. Other countries in Europe have been sending their recyclables to China as well.

However, the endless bales of recyclable materials that are shipped across oceans to China for processing often contain bits of contaminating food scraps, trash, and even medical waste. For years, the Chinese government has overlooked this problem and their customs officials have been unclear on what the rules actually were.

Now that the environment has become more of a priority for the Chinese, the government has decided to reevaluate its import regulations. In February, they initiated “Operation Green Fence,” a campaign to strictly enforce a ban on the import of waste and substandard scrap. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of scrap have subsequently been rejected on account of contamination, and trash and recycling collectors in the U.S. are seeing “unacceptable” plastics pile up fast.

It is unclear if China will continue with such strict enforcement of these new regulations as it seems to be negatively effecting their manufacturing industry, but one thing is clear – the United States does not have the capacity to keep all of its trash and scraps. Other Southeast Asian countries have accepted small shipments, but these “band-aid” fixes can’t be relied on, and a win-win solution is yet to be found. Right now, any entity interested in exporting recyclables simply needs to improve their sorting processes and hope for the best.

There have yet to be any changes as to what materials are accepted at the curb, however, existing rules about what can and cannot be disposed of in recycling carts always deserves a review. Trash in recycling bins is a constant battle faced by all waste management companies, especially here in Portland where we’ve cut back on the number of monthly trash pick-ups.

To keep your recycling efforts on the up-and-up, follow our instructions for preparing your recyclables.

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