Recycling export restrictions

As new restrictions on recyclables going to China are disrupting recycling markets, we are working with local governments and the recycling industry to develop a more resilient system. Central to these efforts are the search for domestic recycling markets and cutting contamination in Washington's recycling stream.

Impacts of export restrictions on recyclables

In 2018, China's government implemented new restrictions on what recyclables may be imported into their country, significantly impacting Washington’s recycling programs. China is a major buyer of Washington’s recyclables. 

China no longer allows the importation of low-grade plastics and unsorted paper. The regulations aim to increase the quality of the recyclables entering China by requiring a low amount of contamination in recyclables it imports.

As a result, Washington residents may see changes in what they can recycle, or other changes in their local recycling programs. In the short term, more recyclables are likely to go to the landfill because no markets are available.

What are the specifics of the ban?

In July 2017, China's government announced that it would ban 24 recyclables, including "unsorted mixed paper" and "mixed plastics," starting in 2018. This ban originates from China's "National Sword" campaign to crackdown on smuggling and contaminated scrap imports.
China applied a strict new contamination standard for other recyclables. Starting in March 2018, all scrap materials imported into China may not exceed 0.5 percent contamination. This is significantly below typical processing standards of 3-5 percent at Washington recycling facilities. And it risks excluding virtually all domestic recyclables from sale in China.
With a few exceptions, China has frozen the approval of all scrap paper import permits. As a result, most scrap paper import companies cannot import any scrap paper into China, causing a total suspension of all imports since Sept. 2017. This has created market uncertainty, even for materials not covered by the restrictions. 

What is recycling contamination, and why is it a problem?

Any item that does not belong in the recycling process is a contaminant. Contamination occurs when non-recyclable material winds up in the recycling stream, or when a recycling bale ends up with the wrong kind of recyclable.

If plastic bags or lids are mixed with paper, they contaminate the paper and reduce its value. Likewise, if glass is placed in with other recyclables, it can break and contaminate the rest of the material.

Contamination is a serious issue — it reduces efficiency, destroys value, and leads to greater waste. Ecology and its partners have been tackling issues related to contamination for several years, with a particular focus on residential commingled recycling (the single bin recycling that most homeowners are familiar with). 

While there are many ways to reduce contamination, the most important is education. What is accepted in one city many not be accepted in a neighboring city. Local governments, their collection companies, and their processors need to develop coordinated messages on what does and does not belong in a commingled bin. Common items that can contaminate recycling bins include plastic bags, plastic wrap and film, liquids, food, soiled packaging, garden hoses, wire hangers, diapers, electronics, lightbulbs, and batteries. Many of these items can be recycled separately — but not in a commingled bin.

For up-to-date guidance, curbside recycling programs can check out our best management practices for commingled residential recycling.