National Sword: Chinese Markets for California Recyclable Materials

California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

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National Sword and China's Restriction on the Import of Recyclable Material

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Export of Recyclable Materials from California: In 2017, 55 percent of the 14.6 million
tons of recyclable exports that were shipped from California were sent to China. China has
accepted a significant amount of the recyclable materials shipped from California since 2000.

Exports of Recyclable Materials from California

See tonnage data in table format.

National Sword and International Scrap Import Restrictions

The export of baled recyclable materials is a key component of California's recycling infrastructure. CalRecycle estimates that a third of all recyclable material generated in California annually is currently exported to foreign markets, and 62 percent of that goes to China. This movement of materials is critical for allowing the state and local jurisdictions to reach their recycling and diversion goals.

However, in July 2017, China announced a policy called National Sword, which limits the import of contaminated recyclable commodities and increases inspections of recyclable commodity imports. In October, the Solid Waste Association of North America issued a notification about the policy, which went into effect in March 2018. This policy change is already starting to have adverse impacts on California, and is resulting in more material being stockpiled at solid waste facilities and recycling centers or disposed of in landfills. In addition, changes in China's policies may have significant impacts on California's economy, as recyclable materials exported from California had a total vessel value of $5.2 billion in 2017, and on California's broader environmental goals.

In Mid-March 2018, China began the Blue Sky 2018 enforcement campaign to prevent the import of materials outlined in the country’s recycling ban. The materials banned by the end of 2018 include post-industrial PE, PET, PS, PVC and other scrap plastic. Additional banned materials include slag and residue from smelted steel and iron; a variety of metal and electrical appliance scraps, such as electric motors, wires and cables; and compressed scrap from cars.

Local Responses and Resources

Local jurisdictions and the waste management and recycling industry in California are responding by taking steps to encourage waste prevention, reduce contamination of recyclable materials, and improve post-collection processing. Some are hiring more workers at material recovery facilities (MRF) and slowing down sorting lines to ensure contaminated (nonrecyclable) material is diverted before recyclables are baled for export.

Here are a few examples:

  • StopWaste (Alameda County) is convening a regional task force to share information, plan public outreach responses and produce recommendations for changes to local recycling programs. The task force includes recycled commodity brokers, local haulers/processors, facility operators and government officials.
  • The California Refuse Recycling Crisis Media Kit provides informational links to current news and talking points useful to jurisdictions in discussing recycling market changes.
  • Sacramento County published a special insert in local newspapers about residential recycling and contamination in collaboration with major local haulers. They have also updated the business recycling resources on their website.
  • San Jose is renegotiating its contracts with solid waste haulers and is exploring methods to encourage residences and businesses to produce less waste.
  • Mid-Valley Disposal, a hauler in the Central Valley, is altering its 2018 educational flyers to be more specific as to what materials can be placed in recycling containers to combat contamination.
  • A central coast hauler is working with schools to advocate waste prevention alternatives and emphasize the purchasing power that schools have with vendors to choose different products.
  • Sonoma County’s 2018 Recycling Guide is an example of free comprehensive recycling guide for residents.

CalRecycle invites jurisdictions to share what they or their haulers are doing to address contamination.

State Response

In the immediate term, CalRecycle is coordinating with local enforcement agencies to address challenges and provide guidance around storage of processed recyclable material. In addition, the department is coordinating with jurisdictions to share examples of local actions.

Looking down the road, CalRecycle continues to build and support recycling markets and infrastructure within California to reduce the state's need to export recyclable material.

CalRecycle's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Grant and Loan Programs provide financial incentives for capital investments in infrastructure for aerobic composting, anaerobic digestion, and recycling and manufacturing facilities that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Grants are targeted to build or expand organics infrastructure, such as composting and anaerobic digestion, or rescuing food to feed hungry people, as well as new or expanded infrastructure for manufacturing products with recycled content fiber, plastic, or glass. These programs are part of California Climate Investments, a statewide program that puts billions of Cap-and-Trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Our Recycling Market Development Zone (RMDZ) program combines recycling with economic development to fuel new businesses, expand existing ones, create jobs, and divert waste from landfills. The program provides loans, technical assistance, and product marketing to businesses that use recyclable materials to manufacture their products.

In addition, the Department continues to pursue options for reducing waste and increasing the recyclability of packaging through its packaging reform process, and to reduce contamination of all recycling streams as a part of its effort to combat climate change and meet mandates for reducing the amount of organics going to landfills.

Timeline of China’s Import Policies and Response from Affected Parties

Timeline of China’s import policies and response from affected parties.

Adapted from Resource Recycling’s “From Green Fence to red alert: A China Timeline

See text description of chart.

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Last updated: June 14, 2018
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