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Posted on: March 4, 2019

Recyclables: Changing Markets

Source: National Waste & Recycling Association, Issue Brief, February 2019

The recycling industry has been very successful at providing environmental benefits including diverting material from landfills, conserving natural resources, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by displacing the use of raw materials. This success was accomplished through the combined efforts of both the public and private industry to collect, sort, bale and market the recyclables to their end-markets.

For years, China has been the single largest consumer of recyclable materials generated in the United States. In 2016, approximately 41% of paper recovered in North America was exported with about a quarter of recyclable paper exported to Chinese mills. Similarly, over 20% of post-consumer bottles and 33% of non-bottle rigid plastics from the U.S. were exported in 2015. The European Union exports over 95% of its plastic to China, and the US and the EU are the largest exporters of recovered paper into China. China consumed over 50% of the world's recycled paper and plastic in 2016.

Since 2017, China has taken a number of steps, including establishing bans and imposing strict quality standards, to restrict recyclable materials imported into China. These measures resulted in significant impacts on recycling within the U.S., and the rest of the world. Because so much material had previously been absorbed by China, the impacts have been dramatic. As recyclers searched for outlets for their materials. other countries began to accept these recyclables. However, many of the countries were quickly overwhelmed by quantity of materials and they began imposing their own restrictions. Costs have increased and revenues have decreased.

Announcements have been made for a number of new facilities. However, it will still be some time before they can be developed to fully replace China. In the meantime, recyclers continue to struggle to manage recyclables programs at economically viable levels. 

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