In the past couple of years, China has triggered a crisis in recycling programs worldwide by changing their import laws:

Historically, the U.S. has shipped about half of its scrap plastic and cardboard overseas. In 2016, 760 million tons of our scrap plastic went to China, but that figure plummeted by 95 percent last year after China tightened its standards for the recycling materials it would accept. It imposed drastic new rules for the level of "contamination," or non-recyclables, acceptable in a shipment. The most a plastic bale can contain is one-tenth of 1 percent.

But why would China implement such restrictions? What's wrong with Chinese recycling companies buying up Western exports?

  • 1
    I suspect more contamination results in more pollution when the plastics are melted for recycling. Either that or it's uneconomical to process plastics with more contaminants, but if there latter were the case, I doubt there would be state-imposed standards. Sep 12, 2019 at 22:06
  • I wonder if an interesting corollary question is "What is the benefit for the Chinese government or people, to recycle Western waste?"
    – DariM
    Sep 13, 2019 at 0:29
  • Is there any reason to believe that the action was a deliberate political decision, designed to disrupt US and other Western economies? Encourage recycling policies, offer cheap disposal methods so that infrastructure would be built, continue to build it up for a decade or two until people take recycling as a normal way of life, and then pull the carpet out from under it. Sep 13, 2019 at 0:50
  • @RayButterworth it also allowed some Western countries to claim extremely high recycling rates for many years. Let's see how well they manage now... Sep 13, 2019 at 0:57

1 Answer 1


I'm not sure how reliable this source is, but apparently there was some kind of political embarrassment in China following a 2016 documentary:

a 2016 documentary called “PLASTIC CHINA” garnered much attention and caused deep embarrassment to the Chinese government yet again. The film depicted the lives of two families who make a living recycling imported plastic waste. Ultimately, this film may have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back—leading China President Xi Jinping to push for the current ban and emphasizing phrases like “Chinese dream” and “beautiful China” along with a desire for environmental improvement.

Apparently in the aftermath China closed down quite a few of the smaller recycling plants.

What exactly are “National Sword” and “Blue Sky 2018”?

“National Sword” was an initiative that took place in 2017, which inspected Chinese recyclables processing facilities and shuttered many of the smaller ones.

We are now in the midst of “Blue Sky 2018,” scheduled to run March through December of 2018. China’s customs authority, the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China, has announced this period of special actions against foreign garbage smuggling. [...]

Though it’s impossible to know exactly what China is thinking, it is assumed that some of its ultimate goals with these programs are:

  • A consolidation of recycling facilities into “Eco-Parks”
  • Larger, cleaner, better-regulated facilities
  • To bolster its own domestic markets

It notes a bit later on that plastics were not the only target of these wave of regulations. Various kinds of scrap metal, presumably also hard to recycle cleanly due to contaminants, e.g. compressed cars (scrap), were also banned.

There does seem to be precedent for Chinese authorities being quite sensitive to media reporting about pollution from their recycling industry.

In 2010, Adam Minter, Bloomberg's Shanghai correspondent, visited Wen'an - then the heart of the global scrap plastic trade – undercover. In 2011 the Chinese government introduced new regulations and shut down the scrap plastic trade in this part of the country.

It's also not the first time China has tightened its import standards.

last time the Chinese tightened standards, in 2013, the city [of Edmonton] saw a $1-million drop in revenue from the flooded market. Officials hope careful management and attention to detail this time will mitigate the impact.

And since China sent a notice to the WTO before the last tightening of standards, here's the official motivation from it:

“We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously,” China’s WTO filing said.

“To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”

As some of the news stories mentioned, some countries objected, but China was unmoved.

  • N.B.: the documentary does exist; here's a trailer for it youtube.com/watch?v=v0Kif9cugQ0 Sep 12, 2019 at 22:34
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    This source backs up everything here, but it also alludes to that as China became more wealthy, manual sorting of trash within the recycling became more expensive. npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/13/702501726/…
    – user9790
    Sep 12, 2019 at 23:12
  • Also externalities of dumping waste, which seemed to be prevalent, not just pollution from recycling centers, which are notorious dirty operations in their own right.
    – user9790
    Sep 12, 2019 at 23:17

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