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China Gets Tough on Plastic Recycling

September 20 2012 | Rise Above Plastics, Bag Bans, Expanded Polystyrene Foam,
by Bill Hickman

The mantra that big business seems to push is ‘Recycle, Recycle, Recycle!’, but at what cost?  Many of the shipping containers that bring us goods from Asia don’t want to head back empty and in 2010 the #1 export from the U.S. to China was ‘Waste and Scrap.’  China recently announced tougher regulations on plastics recycling facilities that could decrease the demand for mixed plastics from abroad.  We can’t recycle our way out of our plastic consumption – we need to find better ways to reduce and reuse.

Luke Vernon writes in his EcoRamblings blog that China “will strictly enforce regulations that prohibit the import of unwashed, post-consumer plastics and they are banning plastics waste in all food-contact plastic bags. Processing of plastics waste in residential areas will be prohibited. They will not allow companies to sell unwashed leftover plastic from sorting of imported plastic and paper and they are banning the transfer of imported waste to a company other than that allowed by the import license.  They are inspecting plastic recycling companies and publishing a list of qualified recyclers, as well as publishing a list of companies that fail inspections.  Companies who fail the test for environmental protection will not be allowed to import plastic waste.”

If China is strict with enforcement of the new policies there could be a backup at recycling facilities in the U.S., more international buyers could emerge or plastic manufacturers could try and prove that recycling works by recycling and processing everything locally.  It is becoming apparent that items such as plastic bags and EPS foam foodware are not being recycled efficiently compared to how much is produced.  As more of the plastic recycling industry is exposed for it’s shortcomings, people and businesses need to stand up to support plastic bag bans/fees and concepts such as Extended Producer Responsibility that help to reduce plastic litter.

Glass, paper and some metals can be recycled efficiently and made into similar items.  Plastics are often downcycled into inferior products or sometimes recycled into different products with unintended consequences.  PET plastic bottles can be shredded and recycled into fabrics, such as fleece for jackets or vests.  Scientists have documented that similar microfibers are showing up on beaches and in the ocean.  It appears the microfibers can shed from the garments in washing machines.  The are small enough to avoid any filters at home or your local wastewater treatment plant so they can enter local waterways and head towards the ocean.

Recycling has it’s place, but at the end of the line.  Focus on the other R’s first: REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE - then recycle.

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