China began enforcing new, very strict standards on what recycling materials are accepted into the country at the beginning of January. The new policy, known as the “National Sword,” bans 24 types of solid waste, including various plastics and unsorted mixed papers, and sets a much tougher standard for contamination levels. Much of what the United States and other countries used to export to China is no longer accepted. Given that the materials have been increasingly contaminated with everything from dirty diapers to syringes to radioactive scrap metal for decades, it’s hard to blame China, but recyclers are struggling to adapt to extremely strict standards for a huge amount of recyclables.
In recent years, China has been taking about half the world’s paper and plastic recyclables, including bales of poorly sorted paper from the United States. This led to the system of “single-stream” recycling becoming predominant, and the quality of materials collected declined. Now, the global recycling market is reeling. Recycling lots are overflowing as people look for new markets for the materials. Recyclers and cities are beginning to seek temporary special permission for collected recyclables to go to the landfill.
The answer is not to give up on recycling. The answer involves long overdue improvement of collection and overall reductions in the sources of waste.
We need a national policy, better infrastructure, and better systems to achieve higher quality. And as individuals we will need to do a better job cleaning and sorting our recyclables before we put them in the bins. But even more so, we need to collectively decrease our own generation of waste from the start. It’s time to focus more on the Reduce and Reuse part of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. People in the United States use four times as much paper as the per capita global average (FAO, 2016), so on just paper alone we have a lot of room to do better.
An easy place to start is getting some of the most wasteful items out of the paper stream. The EPN encourages use of our Paper Utility Matrix to consider where efforts can be focused.
Catalogs, phone books, and paper receipts, many of which have low utility for people and are tossed as soon as they’re received, are a huge part of our paper waste. Paper receipts in the United States alone add up to 1.5 billion pounds of paper a year.
More than ever we need more people and more cities, schools, and businesses to cut phonebooks, paper receipts, catalogs and junk mail.
It takes just moments to join these opt-out programs here and be part of the solution:
Opt-out of unwanted phone books
Opt out of phonebooks for yourself here.
Find resources to encourage your community or city to opt out here.
Skip the Slip
Take the Skip the Slip pledge, learn more about the toxins in paper receipts that shoppers and workers are touching, and help ask companies to move to digital receipts. Business owners and employees can also get more information on why and how to move a company away from paper receipts, or if you’re concerned about your contact with toxins in receipts at work.
Take control of your mailbox
Sign up for Catalog Choice, a free, easy service to stop the catalogs and junk mail you don’t want. Already signed up? Sign in on the same page to start updating your opt-outs. Contact the program to find out what cities and companies can do as well.
Worldwide we are facing not just a recycling crisis, but a consumption and waste crisis. The evidence is more visible to us than ever before, with news stories and social media posts showing people living amid mountains of garbage and exposed to toxins from incinerators, and wildlife, rivers, oceans, and beaches full of plastic. There are so many important reasons to change our recycling and waste economy, and much of that effort will take years. We hope you will be part of the solution, and opt-out of some of the most wasteful uses of paper today.
FAO Yearbook of Forest Products 2010-2014, p 186, http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5542m.pdf, published in 2016