china-garbage-landfill-bw-flickrPhoto credit Flickr/sheilaz413

Though many of us assume that the trash we sort through for recycling will be recycled nearby, the trash is more likely to be shipped abroad, primarily to China.

At $11,310, 000,000 in 2011, trash is the largest US export to China.   But that’s beginning to change.

In Oregon, truckloads of plastics are piling up at recycling depots because Chinese buyers cancelled their orders after the Chinese government instituted Operation Green Fence.  The policy prohibits importing certain solid wastes, which include unwashed plastics.  Industry insider, Gwynn Guilford, reports that it’s not just Oregon trash that’s being rejected.  “What I’m hearing from folks in the industry, it’s that . . . nothing is going.  China’s not taking anything anymore.  It’s a greenwall.”

Because sorting plastic waste is time and dollar intensive, the US doesn’t offer adequate diligence in what it sends off.  If Chinese custom agents find a single syringe in a bale of plastic, it’s considered medical waste and the entire shipment is rejected.

Our reliance on China’s buying up our plastic trash means that we’ve neglected to develop our own plastic recycling capacity.  Another industry insider predicts “Cities are going to have a huge problem on their hands because they don’t know what to do with this stuff.  They have made commitments saying it’s recycled—but they didn’t say how or where.”

In the short term, Vietnam looks like a good alternate source for receiving US plastic trash.  But in the long term, more US plastics will end up in our landfills if we don’t move forward with innovations in our lagging recycling industry.

Sources:  SmartPlanet Daily  , May 13, 2013      Quartz, May 8, 2013


  1. It’s imperative we use obtainable conversion technologies in the U.S. to put an end to this recycling charade. Capture recyclables, send them to China where they use strict environmental and labor codes to process them and ship them back for our markets? I believe that is the epitome of a charade. Organics to methane, plastics to oil, paper to gasoline; these are all viable technologies which are now available. Separation is the key and it must be furthered. This will become another market controlled by someone outside the U.S. which will have drastic reverberations on the quality of life here.
    Barney Gorey – Organic Energy Corporation

    • Barney–

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts & expertise. I’ll be publishing a blog in the next week or two about cheap, biodegradable polymers being produced from grasses.

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