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Chinese Chokepoint

U.S. Waste Paper Turned Away

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Companies that recycle cardboard boxes were overwhelmed after record-breaking holiday shopping online. The U.S. Postal Service estimated it delivered 10 percent more packages in 2017 than the year before. Amazon, the leader in online shopping, said it shipped more than 5 billion items for Prime members in 2017. All of this cardboard is a huge recycling challenge. Americans routinely toss food waste and other garbage into their recycling carts, and China, the country that receives the bulk of these contaminated recyclables, says it has had enough.

China, by far the world’s biggest importer and processor of recyclables, has put the U.S. on notice that it will begin turning away all but the most pristine used plastics and unsorted waste paper by this fall and early next year. The pronouncement has alarmed U.S. government and industry officials, especially on the West Coast, that face the challenge of either cleaning up the vast, never-ending stream of recyclables to meet China’s strict standards or finding other places to dump the messy items—perhaps in landfills.

The uncertainty caused by China’s looming ban is beginning to slow down the entire West Coast system for sorting and shipping off recyclables. In Hong Kong, which ships its waste paper and cardboard to the Chinese mainland, mounds of the materials already are piling up at docks and in cargo ships being kept at sea.


This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Natural Awakenings.

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