China’s Ban on Plastic Imports Reveals Flaws in New York’s Recycling Systems

China recently shut its borders to plastic imports, creating a mounting recycling crisis in New York, and across the western world. In an effort to limit pollution in its own country, the Chinese government announced late last year that beginning in 2018, they would ban almost all plastic imports from other countries. Before the ban, China was the world’s leading buyer of plastics and recyclables, importing 45% of all the world’s plastic waste. Most sources of this plastic are high-income countries, with the United States at the top of the list. In 2016 alone, China imported 693 metric tons of plastic products from the U.S.

With the extremely high quantity of plastic waste being produced worldwide, the prohibition of plastic imports in China should not come as a surprise. The effects of the ban still hit hard, especially to wealthier nations like the U.S. that previously relied on China to take the waste off their hands. One study predicts that with the ban in place, 111 million tons of plastic could build up in landfills and waterways worldwide by 2030 with 37 million tons in the United States. With few measures in place to handle recycle this amount domestically, the U.S. will soon find itself in a plastic-ridden predicament.

Plastic waste has grown by over 300 million metric tons since 1950 and is continuously rising. A fraction of these scraps are recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills or waterways.

New York is struggling to develop recycling methods that are sustainable and economically viable. In Albany, for example, the flaws in our recycling infrastructure are surfacing in light of the ban. A trash hauler in the area will now begin to charge customers including the city of Albany to accept recyclables, possibly causing a $400,000 yearly deficit in the city’s budget. The demand for recyclables is now dangerously low and the products have virtually no value without China as the main buyer. Recycling companies are reporting that free recycling is not economically feasible, as recyclables cost more to process than they can be sold for.

We can no longer avoid these failures of the recycling system, and economics of recycling must be fixed.

There is plenty we can do to reduce plastic waste in New York. Almost 1,600 NYLCV members took action this June and asked our state legislature to help reduce disposable plastic bag waste by passing S. 7760/A. 9953. This legislation would ban single-use plastic bags and impose a fee on other disposable bags. Disposable plastic bags pose great problems to the recycling process as they cannot be easily recycled and often end up contaminating entire batches of clean recyclables. Though it did not pass this session, small steps like this are necessary to reduce plastic waste and decrease the burden on our recycling system. Beyond legislation to reduce waste, New York should also explore options for strengthening the recycling market, such as stimulating the market for recycled goods and requiring manufacturers to reduce packaging and take responsibility for their own waste.