Zero Waste

What Does China's Recycling Ban Mean for Residents and Businesses?

January 14, 2021

In recent decades, Americans have grown used to the convenience of single-stream recycling, which allows most recyclable items to be deposited in the same bin. Historically, this approach has had many benefits, like boosting participation in recycling.

However, there are also downsides to the single stream approach. Most people lack an understanding of which items can or cannot be recycled, and what condition is acceptable, leading many people “wishcycle”, disposing of items they hope or falsely believe are recyclable, such as plastic film or dirty food containers. The result is a contamination rate of almost 25% - meaning that one in four items put into the recycling stream is not actually recyclable.

This high contamination rate, which is characteristic of single-stream recycling techniques, has led international partners such as China to enact import bans on solid recyclables. International backlash has ensued, as developed nations like the United States, Germany and Japan can no longer rely on import methods to get rid of their recyclables. Due to China’s actions, far-reaching, adverse effects are being felt by residents and businesses throughout the Western world, and especially within the U.S.

Contamination may be the source of new legislation

For the American recycling industry, the effects of China’s ban have been catastrophic. With industry leaders in waste management lowering their profit projections for future quarters, the economic impact of China’s policy is abundantly clear. While larger corporations might be able to handle such setbacks, the overall effect of this ban on small and medium-sized waste management businesses have been, and will continue to be, catastrophic - unless immediate action is taken.

The effect of these macro-economic trends will ripple through large refuse generators (any site that generates more than 40 cubic yards of waste per week) in San Francisco. In 2018, the City Council unanimously passed a new ordinance, which mandated that buildings who fail a waste audit will be required to employ sorters for a full year. 

San Francisco Department of Environment has found that nearly 60% of all material in the waste stream is either recyclable or compostable. As generators grapple to understand the cost of introducing staff, with fines of up to $1000/day possible along with the loss of diversion discounts, it has become increasingly important for generators to regularly conduct accurate waste audits. Over the long run, tracking and understanding waste generation via quality visual audits will be pivotal to reducing contamination and boosting diversion, in order to avoid severe fines and added labor costs. 

Residents are feeling the pinch of recycling more

The most notable effects of China’s ban on numerous different recyclables can be seen in the disconnect between the reality of this new policy and resident behavior. In general, most people are not aware of the local implications from their poor recycling habits. 

The actions of a small community in Maine are notable, and highlight how cities and companies can partner to drive positive changes, while educating residents on the need for strong recycling habits. Samford, Maine wanted to fight back against China’s ban and joined forces with the local recycling firm to force residents to change their behaviors through the hand examination of recyclables left on the curb.

If residents failed to recycle correctly, they were required to pay for their trash plus a hefty fine. 

Remarkably, this program dropped contamination rates in Samford to less than 3%, proving that  residents, communities, and companies can successfully collaborate to solve their recycling problems.

How can more efficient waste audits help alleviate these issues?‍

Waste audits can offer residential property management, businesses and other large organizations a window into their waste stream, to better understand the origins, amount and type of waste they generate.

Gaining knowledge is the first step to solving problems in the waste stream, and the more accurate, in-depth knowledge the better. Audits are best done regularly, to gain an accurate picture of the waste stream across seasons, buildings and floors. Gathering as much contextual data as possible is also helpful, such as which items are causing the most contamination or getting incorrectly put in the landfill bin.

Unfortunately, most audits are still done by pen and paper, which makes the process time intensive, error-prone and infrequent due to labor costs. This is where new companies, including Zabble, are bringing digital platforms to revamp waste audits. 

If we can use data to inform targeted solutions at the source of the problem, the negative impact of China’s import ban on recycling goods will be reduced. Digital transformation in waste management can serve to catalyze behavior change and the formation of local reuse and recycling businesses, in place of wasteful practices and the exporting of recycling across the Pacific ocean. 

To learn more about how Zabble is providing digital solutions to large commercial and institutional organizations, please contact us