The China Ban: Why more of your recyclables are going to the landfill

Inside the Puente Hills Materials Recovery Facility (Photo: Jenny Hamel)

For decades, the recycling market was driven by China, which was buying a lot of what was coming out of our blue recycle bins here in LA and in the United States. In the process, China was taking half the planet’s recycling, so it essentially inherited half the planet’s trash and pollution.

However, in January of this year, a new Chinese policy called “National Sword” went into effect. It banned 24 types of “foreign waste” from entering the country – that includes a lot of plastics and mixed paper, which Americans are accustomed to recycling. China also implemented a tough new contamination standard. Essentially, if any given bale of recyclables is less than 99.5 percent clean, they reject it. This means: no greasy pizza boxes, no marinara bottles with sauce still lining the glass, no coffee-stained newspapers. And the list goes on.

These new rules mean roughly 20-30 percent more of the material from our blue bins here in LA have been sent to the landfill since the policies went into effect.

Inside the Puente Hills Materials Recovery Facility (Photo: Jenny Hamel)
(Photo: Jenny Hamel)

On a recent visit to the Puente Hills Materials Recovery Facility, one of the places where LA County’s recyclables goes to get sorted, baled and often exported, it was abundantly clear how much we consume, and how much we throw away. There were mammoth piles of paper, plastics and other stuff we toss away.

“After we separate out the recyclables from the non contaminated recyclables, then the rest of it’s going to go to the landfill and, unfortunately, at much higher percentages” said Bob Asgian, Assistant Department Head for Solid Waste Management at the County Sanitation Districts.

The rules about what can and can’t be recycled depend on where you live. Each jurisdiction or waste management district has their own contract with different recycling processors. But it’s still hard to figure out exactly what to do. A close read of 6 different city’s recycling guidelines pages revealed that almost all of them appeared to be outdated and not reflective of what is being recycled in light of China’s recent restrictions.

We reached out to many of those districts, and of them, Santa Monica officials said via email that at the next City Council meeting “the City’s Public Works Department is asking City Council to modify our current recycling contract as a direct result of China’s market impacts”

What you can recycle

First, make sure all your recyclables are clean. “What we’d like to do is just encourage you to give it a quick rinse. Don’t spend a lot of energy and time because we feel that if people feel like it’s a chore or are less likely to do it,” said Coby Skye, Principal Engineer with the LA County Public Works Department.

  • Clean Aluminum cans and containers, rinsed out
  • Plastic bottles and jugs (soda, water, detergent, milk) Plastics that say 1 or 2 on the container No low grade plastics, contaminated plastics or small pieces or scraps
  • Clean glass bottles, rinse out any food like spaghetti sauce
  • Clean dry paper (office paper, newspaper, mixed paper) No junk mail and envelopes
  • Clean cardboard (especially corrugated cardboard). No wet or contaminated cardboard.
    Scrap metal
  • Plastic toys (parts made from other material removed )

What isn’t being recycled?

Any food packaging, styrofoam, plastic bags, shredded paper and envelopes, bubble wrap, cereal boxes, beer boxes, small plastic containers that typically have food or liquid in them like yogurt cups and strawberry containers. (Typically described as plastics 3-7)

Go to Los Angeles County’s Public Works Department’s website if you want some good recycling guidelines, and more information on how you can recycle tires, what to do with your junk mail, etc.