China’s recycling ban and its impact – IRC conference 2018

The Indiana Recycling Coalition‘s (IRC) conference is a yearly event held in Indianapolis that represents recycling stakeholders from many different regions and backgrounds in waste reduction. The breakout sessions are varied and highly valuable to anyone interested in learning more about waste reduction practices. I was invited to the IRC’s annual conference to attend several panels.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to attend the conference since, as some very focused on the individual aspect of waste reduction, it’s good to hear from someone on the commercial/wider-scale side of things. But this post took me a long time to write because I had a lot of thoughts about the experience.

The natural tension with such a complicated, shades-of-grey issue like recycling is that everyone wants something different. Consumers want an easy answer they don’t have to think about, the government wants all recyclable products gone, and recycling businesses are – at the end of the day – not environmental organizations.

Here are a few highlights from a panel on China’s recycling ban and its impact on the Midwest as well as some general thoughts on recycling. (The panel included representatives from Ray’s Trash & Recycling, Republic Services, Rumpke, Pratt Industries, Indiana Rural Community Assistance Program, Perpetual Recycling Solutions.)

Want to see my take on the most eco-friendly recycling options for packaging?

china ban on imports

In case you’re really late to the news, China enacted a recycling ban at the start of 2018. It started with plastic and paper imports for recycling that has a contamination level of over 1%. It later expanded that to other items like steel waste, used auto parts and old ships.

(Quickly: 1% is very low and impossible to achieve, China was formerly taking higher rates of contamination and either processing it there or simply throwing it away. A huge environmental disaster they’re keen to rectify after UN pressure.)

The ban heavily impacts the west coast of the USA as well as Australia; areas that basically got to ignore their waste for decades with a “if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist” policy. Interestingly, I learned at the conference that Indiana is pretty uniquely safe from the China ban because they work in a fairly close-looped system and much of the recycling stays within the local economy.

If you recall, the original term “zero waste” was meant in an industrial sense just like this – where resources are staying a closed loop system, getting constantly retooled and reused. You can see more on that in this post.

That’s great news for me here in Middle America, but for many people what was formerly recycling is now classified as waste. If it has no value, it doesn’t matter if it’s technically recyclable and will end up in the landfill. (Though don’t worry – this article from Bloomberg suggests Southeast Asian companies are eager to take on the environmental burden to bolster their economy. I’m sure we’ll be back to shipping away our problems soon enough.)

whose fault is the recycling crisis?

The quote I wrote and underlined so hard I almost tore through the paper during the panel: “the issue is not China, it’s consumers”.

Let’s unpack that.

The point was that consumers don’t recycle well and that, thanks to single-stream recycling (ie. throwing everything in one bin), contamination rates have skyrocketed. We assume a person or machine will figure it out for us which is not the case. Consumer laziness or lack of knowledge is causing huge headaches for recycling companies.

From personal experience, I totally understand.

I recently purchased a house in a new city. Neither the city nor the garbage collection company sent me one piece of literature on what I could recycle, despite the city having a cute little infographic. I asked a neighbor and they’d never received any information that they could remember in 10+ years.

Education (and enforcement) is clearly missing.

As a consumer, I understand the issue. As an educator, the disconnect is worrisome. But what got me? The panel – again, representing Indiana recycling companies – suggested it was not their job to educate consumers. That was left to… well, someone that wasn’t them.

Once again I find myself wondering at the system we’ve found ourselves in. There’s such a disconnect between all levels of the recycling process that it’s very difficult to do what’s right, even if you have all the best intentions in the world. 

There was also talk on the role of corporations and how a push for more easily recyclable packaging is important. This is critical for me. I wrote about how companies are greenwashing their brands to appear more eco-friendly without actually changing any of their practices. I think it’s equally dishonest and unethical to sell a product with packaging you know is going into the landfill.

China's recycling ban and its impact - IRC conference 2018 - Green Indy Blog

so how valuable is recycling?

For now, it’s important and having companies willing to put in some effort to optimize the system is key. The issue with recycling is – as we’ve seen over the last decades – thinking that recycling is the end-game for environmentalism is a dangerous game.

Indiana recovers less than 10% of the plastic it consumers, right in line with global statistics. (A 2017 study suggested 91% of plastic bottles aren’t recycled.) But realistically if we were recovering 75-85% of the plastic we consume, I have my doubts there would be enough capacity for recycling. The world is consuming just bottled water at 1 million bottles per second.

The real issue is not so much education around recycling but education about consumption.

The clearest answer is to move away from packaging and seek out zero waste solutions. (Easier said than done, right?) We can start that process:

  • stop consuming so much
  • choose unpackaged options or packaging that can be composted
  • buy packaging you know can be recycled in your local progam
  • pressure companies to create better packaging in the wake of the ban

I appreciate the invitation to attend the IRC conference and felt really honored to be able to hear a perspective on waste management that I don’t usually get. That being said, it was a great reminder that the way forward is to avoid reliance on imperfect systems wherever possible and do our best to find sustainable solutions for our own community.

What are your thoughts on the points raised here? Where does the burden of educating consumers about environmental issues lie?


  • Educating myself on how much is disregarded in our country’s actions of waste, toxic chemicals in food, in products we use daily. I feel defeated. Defeated by large corps, defeated by government, defeated by social media/advertisement. I have been doing my part in this zero waste movement, being less of a consumer, trying to create the least amount of trash, being conscious of my actions on the environment and my family’s health. By choosing the cleanest options available. And by no means am I perfect, I have succumbed to buying new items at big box stores. I do have a teenager as well who loves electronics and new clothes! I try my best to have balance and weigh my options.

    As I step back and take a look around, not many people care, I know there are some people out there, however, the vast majority do not. People do not want to be inconvenienced with the truth. The truth of farm works being sprayed with pesticides as they work, the truth of the treatment of children making clothes and (Fast Fashion) being paid cents, the excessive use of single use plastics and the treatment of animals in factory farms. Majority of consumers choose to turn away then to face the truths of their actions. It’s easier to live with the “Ignorance is bliss” mentality then to make critical changes in our life style. This destructive culture is accepted in our society.

    Advertisement, in my opinion plays a large role in showing consumers only the good side. They sell consumers a dream and a certain lifestyle. The biggest impact I have seen is on Instagram, we follow “real people” and feel as if we know them and majority of Instagramers now have sponsored posts with the swipe up to buy this and that, I have a discount code. This is dangerous form of advertisement for people to consume more goods with out thinking of the environmental cost and impact. They’re buying more because they like the lifestyle of the person they’re following. Everywhere you look, someone or something is advertising their product. It happens when I log in to my email, when I turn on the radio, when I watch TV, billboards on the freeway, when I pick up my mail. Environmentalists are competing against a billion dollar industry.

    I would like to think that the burden of educating society on environmental issues is the responsibility of the Government, but in this current administration, I do not believe that human lives & the environment are of priority. The reality is, it is we the people to force the administration to change federal regulations on waste, toxic levels in products, hold corporations accountable (as you mentioned above, contacting them) for their negative externalities and educate consumers on their environmental impact. It is also important that we are having educational programs that are accessible to all socioeconomic statuses.

    As consumers we have the power, it is important that information is out there (Like this wonderful informative blog here) and that we realize that if we band together enough people to refuse to buy products in plastic or products known to be harmful. Then just maybe corporations will see this shift and adjust appropriately.

    • Wow, thank you for this long and thoughtful post. I agree that – regardless of who we think should do the education – in the current system it’s got to come from us as consumers.

      “It is also important that we are having educational programs that are accessible to all socioeconomic statuses.” this x100000!

  • I couldn’t agree more! The main issue isn’t China it’s the consumer. That’s because people don’t care about what happens to things if they don’t directly affect them. It’s terrible, but that’s how most people think.

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