Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) are important recycling partners with their communities. MRFs produce commodity-grade recyclable materials that are sold throughout the world. China is the world’s largest consumer of scrap materials, but a ban on the import of certain paper and plastic scrap imposed by the Chinese government has caused uncertainty and confusion for municipalities and MRF operators as to what can and cannot be recycled and how these materials must be handled.
A number of communities have already banned the collection of some if not all plastics as part of curbside collection programs, while others are considering it. ISRI developed this primer to provide information on China’s changing scrap regulations and what it means for recycling in the United States to help municipalities maximize recycling rates and keep valuable commodities out of landfills.
China’s Regulations on Scrap Imports
On July 18, 2017, China notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) of its intent to ban the import of certain scrap materials by year end. Among the items included on the list are most scrap plastics ("including polymers of ethylene, styrene, vinyl chloride and PET...") and mixed paper. The Chinese Government also released a draft revision of the “Environmental Protection Control Standards for Imported Solid Wastes as Raw Materials” – technical guidelines for scrap content and quality imported into China. Of particular note are proposals to drop the “carried waste” (or allowable prohibitive) thresholds to 0.3% for all scrap materials, thereby affecting all scrap trade with China.
Can Plastics Really No Longer Be Recycled?
China’s ban does not mean that plastics can no longer be recycled; it merely changes the roadmap of scrap trade. There are other export markets for plastic scrap, including Mexico, India, and Vietnam. The U.S. domestic market is also growing, and we believe future investment in processing technology will only spur the market further.
However, China’s import regulations could incite additional demand worldwide for cleaner materials, requiring municipalities to consider taking measures to meet that demand.
What China’s Ban Really Means for Curbside Collection Program
Over the course of the last several years, the U.S. recycling industry has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of the recycling stream. These efforts have included developing inbound MRF specifications so that MRF operators, municipalities and the public have a better understanding of what materials can and cannot be recycled. Communities that use these guidelines will improve the quality of their stream and have better opportunities to find markets for their materials.
Meeting the guideline’s requirements may mean changing what materials can be collected and how, depending on a municipality’s current operations and future capital upgrades. Those that use a one-bin collection system (i.e., the co-mingling of trash and recyclables) will require more systemic changes to minimize cross-contamination and increase sorting rates in order to create a cleaner steam of recyclable materials.
What Communities Can Do to Make Sure Recyclable Paper and Plastics Avoid Landfills
- Understand the Market.Become familiar with the scope of materials in demand and how to ensure materials meet the needs of buyers, including through the use of the ISRI Scrap Specifications Circular.
- Enhance Quality.Work with the community to improve household efforts to separate trash and recyclables, including clear guidance on what can be recycled, how to clean food containers, keep paper dry and other efforts.Also consider capital improvements at sorting facilities to minimize cross-contamination, enhance sorting and prepare shipments according to market requirements.
What Can and Cannot Be Recycled, and Everything In Between
Scrap processing capabilities vary considerably from region to region, even with huge differences between neighboring communities. ISRI developed the following guide for MRFs and recycling centers to understand the scope of recyclability of a wide range of materials. This guide helps municipalities understand the marketplace for recyclable materials and is organized in terms of widely accepted items, acceptable items in limited quantities, recyclability in certain cases, and items not accepted. For a detailed list of scrap specifications, refer to ISRI’s Scrap Specification Circular.