You may have never wondered where the things you leave by the curb for recycling go, but it’s a reasonable belief to think it goes to China, as 75% of the United States’ recyclable aluminium scrap does. As does 60% of its exported scrap paper. As does 50% of its scrap plastic. Or did. Until now, that is.

In February, China put into effect Operation Green Fence, a policy aimed at reducing imported waste. While this doesn’t change China’s willingness to accept recyclable materials, it does crack down highly on added non-recyclable waste that creeps into the recyclable materials shipped there, and the new policy has some US recyclers on edge. Doug Kramer, president of Kramer Metals, a Los Angeles, California-based international scrap dealer notes that, in the past, many US companies viewed China as a dumping ground for below standard scrap and garbage. Now that the Chinese have made the move to increase inspections of scrap-filled containers of metals, plastics, and paper when they reach Chinese ports, and are intent on tightly enforcing the new rules, some international scrap dealers are facing problems, and uncertainty.

After seeing more than 800,000 tons of prohibited garbage refused since the program began a few months ago, a considerable number of US scrap dealers are rejecting recyclable consignments out of fear they may hold illegally large levels of unrecyclable materials, like unwashed items, incorrect plastics, and other inappropriate waste mixed in with recyclable products. This has led European and American cities and towns to discover the market China once offered for their poorly sorted collections of waste products has, to a large extent, disappeared, causing a conundrum in those Western nations about what to do with their garbage.

China, however, is not by any means rejecting every kind of scrap. With few resources of its own, and a growing industrialization that depends greatly on recycling other nations’ plastics into fabric, and junk metal into machinery, China is only cracking down on that refuse that doesn’t meet the standards of usefulness to them. At a recent China Metals Recycling Association meeting, former pollution inspector Li Xinmin told those in attendance, “Making proper use of this scrap supplements China’s resources, helps save energy, protects the environment, and boosts economic efficiency.”

One of the main problems, which led to the crackdown on China’s part, is that much of their recycling industry is still in functioning in a more primitive form than that of Western nations, including scenarios where the work is done in facilities lacking the ability to treat wastewater before it goes into local waterways, seriously impacting China’s environment. In the past, according to David Cornell, a consultant to the Washington, DC-based Association of Post-Consumer Plastic Recyclers, Chinese recyclers had become accustomed to finding the bales of plastic scrap they purchased to recycle also contained 20% pure garbage. It was necessary to separate that garbage from the recyclable items, then bury or burn it, which caused further problems for China’s environment.

Although there’s nothing new in China’s regulations banning the importation of non-recyclable garbage, the diligent enforcement of those laws began in earnest when Project Green Fence was put into action. Since February, when the stepped-up enforcement began, Sun Kangning, owner of a small plastic recycling company in Laizhou in Shandong Province, has seen 24 shipping containers of plastic for recycling he had purchased from the United States refused to be allowed into China by customs agents, which amounts to a full 20% of his business. This one example of how China has apparently decided to address enforcing the issue before the waste is allowed into the country, rather than after it reaches recycling plants within China, which are often small, makeshift plants, and much more difficult to monitor.

How Western recyclers will adjust to the changes is yet to be seen, and some feel Chinese customs inspectors will eventually lighten up on enforcement and allow unrecyclable scrap back into the country, particularly considering Chinese officials have said that the campaign to spur greater enforcement will end in November. Others are less sure that will be the case, including Wang Jiwei, a leader of the China Metals Recycling Association. “After the campaign, both sides will understand the laws better, and I think they will continue to be enforced, ” he states, will acknowledging the more stringent enforcement has put Chinese recyclers, and their international suppliers of materials, in a position that will require adjustment from all involved.

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