China’s Impact on The United States’ Recycling System

Wolfe Rygaard

A few years back, China made headlines for “breaking the world’s waste system” when they announced the National Sword Policy which would greatly reduce the amount of accepted recyclable imports. China then added salt to the wound by stating a desire to ban all recyclable imports in the coming years. Having previously accepted 95% of the European Union's plastic and 70% of the United States’ plastic, overnight, a number of countries turned their backs and labeled China a traitor. However, not only did China hint at these actions before, but they have also been solving a problem that other countries brought on themselves.

When the news first hit the front pages, many claimed that they were blindsided by the ban. China must have known about its importance to global recycling and as such, they should’ve given the other nations a warning so they could construct and upgrade their own recycling systems. Well, China did exactly that. Years before the National Sword Policy went into effect, China implemented the Green Fence Policy which greatly reduced the number of substandard recyclables it would accept. With reasons including the hazardous substances within these materials which harmed workers and damage done to the environment through incineration and dumping, it shouldn’t have been difficult to see the next steps China would take. There are still claims that China did not ban the import of plastics for the sake of its people. Instead, the ban came about due to the recycling process failing to remain profitable. Though this is a reasonable conclusion, we should instead ask how it differs from the United States’ decision to send its plastic across the ocean. After all, the United States sold China that waste. Not to mention, the most valuable plastics had already been removed from the pile before being shipped overseas.

The reality is that the United States produced an immense amount of waste but never had to worry about proper disposal or recycling as long as China remained open. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that the country generated 35.7 million tons of plastic. Despite knowing the effects plastics have on the environment, production continues and the recycling rate of 8.7% isn’t nearly enough to offset the 16.3% that is combusted or the 18.5% that ends up in landfills. What should upset Americans is the number of places that have blue bins which are nothing more than trash cans. What should upset Americans are the advertisements that label plastic as eco-friendly because it’s recyclable. However, looking in the mirror proved too difficult, and now China must shoulder the blame.

Once we are willing to accept responsibility, we can make a change. For example, you could invest in a reusable water bottle. This small change, on average, will save 156 water bottles each year. You can also inspire those around you to help grow that number. Informing your friends and family about the significant impact of such a small change is necessary because the biggest bottled water companies are continuing to rake in billions of dollars and they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. However, this is just the beginning. Our national mindset must shift from senseless consumption to one of conscious purchasing. Otherwise, we might as well through our future into the landfill along with our plastic.


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I am an environmental scientist who currently resides in Puerto Rico. I’m also passionate about basketball and Tottenham Hotspur.

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