Understanding China’s Recyclables Bans: A Timeline

By Liz Skolnick

In July of last year, China filed notification with the WTO that by the end of 2017, it would ban the import of 24 different kinds of solid waste, including various types of plastics, textiles and waste paper. This announcement sent exporters to China - including the US, UK and Canada - reeling. But it’s only the latest in a series of waste import crackdowns that have played out over the past few years. As China continues to aggressively phase out waste imports, what does this mean for the global flow of materials? Well, it’s generally agreed that this has thrown a major wrench in the process. Countless articles have documented the pile up of paper, plastic and other materials at processing facilities. Left with little choice of where to send them, some facilities have opted to send recyclables to landfill. To understand how we got to this state, let’s take a look at the history of China’s recent policies and bans.

Operation Green Fence

February, 2013 —  In a move that sent shockwaves throughout the world of waste management, China unveiled “Operation Green Fence,” an aggressive campaign to strictly enforce regulations enacted in 2011 but not generally adhered to by customs officers. All of a sudden, shipments of materials were subject to rigorous inspection where before there had been little oversight; any container with more than a 1.5% rate of contamination (non-recyclable material) was rejected.   

Despite the relatively small number of containers that were turned away, recycling exporters read the message loud and clear, as they contemplated the increased costs and effort needed to get their materials up to China’s “impossible” standards. Some of them opted to export to southeast asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand, though with much less capacity, these could hardly fill the void left by China.

The Green Fence inspections lasted from February to November of 2017 and sent a message that China would no longer be the world’s dumping ground, accepting low quality waste while profit loss associated with contamination was passed to its manufacturers. As a result of Operation Green Fence, market prices for recyclables took a nosedive while the costs to exporters of reducing contamination stacked up. 247 companies lost their import licenses, and 800,000 tons of recyclables were rejected. Despite these negative effects, individuals on the inside and outside of the industry have been keen to point out a possible silver lining. As one former industry professional points out, Operation Green Fence has “presented western recycling businesses and municipalities with an opportunity to evaluate their existing business processes and policies and find alternatives to an export based recycling system.” (Rick LeBlanc, “Impact of Operation Green Fence on the Global Recycling Industry”

National Sword

February, 2017 — The campaign “National Sword” was announced by China. National Sword was a massive effort to crack down on illegal smuggling of various types of materials and goods (from agricultural products to illegal drugs and firearms) into China. This included investigating the illegal smuggling of “foreign waste,” which meant more scrutiny of all incoming containers by Chinese officials, and sluggishness at customs, adding up to higher costs for exporters of even legal waste materials. Low grade plastic bales and dirty paper bales were increasingly targeted for inspection as “National Sword” played out. As spring came in, import fees for material exporters doubled.

2017 WTO Filings

July, 2017 — China served up notice of its stringent new ban on 24 different types of scrap materials, including many types of commonly used plastic, paper and textiles. Now, not only would contamination be an issue, but the country simply would not accept whole categories of materials from its usual importers by the end of 2017, affecting much of the US, Europe and beyond. Here in the US, we’ve already begun to feel the effects in a big way: recyclables pile up at processing facilities like E.L. Harvey & Sons in Westborough, MA with nowhere to go. Some curbside recycling programs and drop-off centers have even stopped receiving commonly recycled materials like plastics.

Blue Sky 2018

March 2018 — Cut to the present. China has launched “Blue Sky 2018.” Set to run from March to December of this year, the policy is a continuation of the ban on materials that originated with “National Sword,” with the aim of both stopping smuggling, and preventing the import of recyclables deemed too dirty. So, what does this mean? With the loss of the globe’s number one recycler, we have seen and will see more recyclables end up in landfills or incinerated, while others are exported to Southeast Asian countries, which still currently cannot handle the volume of recyclables processed by China. If a solution for properly handling these materials is not found, curbside collection of many materials may simply be abandoned.

On the flipside, this does create the opportunity for dealing with our waste here in the US. This could mean the creation of new jobs and markets here, while also raising the standards for the materials’ cleanliness, which would certainly be a good thing! But this process won’t happen overnight. Meanwhile, market prices for materials continue to fall (most recently, cardboard has been particularly hard hit), and more and more reusable items are thrown into a cradle-to-grave cycle.

Though “growing pains” are certainly being felt, a larger question emerges: Could this represent a paradigm shift? Could forcing producers upstream to clean up their act extend to other points in the chain of waste generation? China has shifted the financial and the sorting burden upstream. Could this have a domino effect, paving the way for more product stewardship? For better sorting education for participants in recycling programs? For ingenuity in manufacturing packaging that can be more easily handled? While the full ramifications of China’s bans remain to be seen, one thing is sure — we’re in for some changes.


Click here for a detailed breakdown of how China’s bans have affected each state: