China just shook up the world with a new policy that could have a huge impact on the recycling industry.

Starting in 2018, China implemented a ban on 24 types of solid waste, including mixed paper and plastics.

For years, China has been the world’s dumping ground for recycled materials, so this ban has sent waves of panic across the international recycling community.

Although the ban doesn’t focus specifically on electronics, experts agree that changes could be coming to how countries, including the U.S., handle e-waste as China clamps down on imports that could pose a threat to the environmental health of the country’s population of 1.3 billion people.

The Price China paid for being the World’s Dumping Ground

Before the ban, China had been processing at least half of the world’s recycling. It is estimated that China processed 7.3 million tons of waste in 2016 alone.

Those numbers had steadily increased since China began accepting plastic waste since 1980s, and much of the used recyclables from around the world were used to supply its manufacturing boom.

Many Chinese businesses made a ton of money and it helped to create hundreds of “scrap millionaires” over the last few decades. But all this money and boom has come at a price for the Chinese people and its environment.

The chart below shows the amount of disposed waste in China (in millions of tons).

Statista: Amount of disposed garbage in China

Source: Statista

To counter this problem, China notified the World Trade Organization in July 2017 about a possible ban on certain imports to protect public health and environment.

In its notification, China said that dirty and even hazardous waste was mixed in the imported solid waste, so it could no longer be used as raw materials for manufacturing.

In addition, China complained that much of the recycled material it got from other countries was not cleaned or it was mixed with non-recyclable materials. Chinese authorities claimed that all this was polluting its environment in a big way, so a ban was imminent.

When the ban went into effect at the beginning of this year, many recyclers in Western countries were affected. Specifically, exporters in the U.K., U.S., Europe and Canada were impacted as these countries account for a lion’s share of China’s imported waste.

It is estimated that the U.S. exports 1.42 million tons of scrap to China that’s worth around $495 million.

Recycling Companies going to Extremes to Dispose of their waste

With this ban in place, waste is piling up in garages and warehouses in all these countries. To handle this piling waste, some cities and countries have already been forced to take drastic steps. A number of Oregon companies have already asked regulators whether they can send recyclable materials to landfills, and recyclers who have been used to exporting their waste overseas are warning that number may grow if they can’t find someplace else that wants them.

Some recycling companies have started blaming China for this quick clampdown. In reality, though, this ban was something waiting to happen.

The National Sword Program, established in February 2017, gave Chinese authorities the right to investigate recycling shipments in Chinese ports. Those who weren’t following the established environmental norms were arrested and some businesses were even shut down.

Before National Sword, the Green Fence program established in 2013 enforced restrictions on imported electronic scrap for three years. The swift implementation of these programs should have given Western recyclers an inkling of what was coming, yet most of them were unprepared for the consequences.

The good news for China

Despite all the hardships it is causing to the world’s recycling industries, the ban on foreign waste is good news for China. Environmental activist Ma Jun told SBS News that this ban is a positive step for the Chinese environment and public health as this waste was causing enormous levels of secondary pollution in China.

According to Jun, the local providers were not complying with the laws, and the materials were not meeting the established standards. Both these factors were seriously harming the Chinese environment and its people.

In addition, Steve Wong of the China Scrap Plastics Association wants to stop all imports that could harm the Chinese environment. He believes that the e-waste industry should not put 1.3 billion people at risk. Some believe that it’s only a matter of time before China decides to put a complete ban on imported used electronics as well.

So what does this ban mean for the tons of e-waste that’s generated in the Western world each year?

Consider an alternative to recycling electronics

Some people believe that this is a short-term problem and they can simply move all this waste to other countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and India. A few others believe that digging landfills are the solution.

Unfortunately, none of these solutions are sustainable.

First of all, other developing countries don’t have the same recycling capacity as China and local laws don’t favor such imports. Also, digging landfills is never a solution, considering the amount of waste we generate throughout the world.

That’s why we believe in upcycling at Surplus Service. We even coined the term UpcyclIT® to denote our dedication to reuse and providing an alternative to waste and recycling.

Recycling requires breaking down a piece of equipment into raw components using chemical, shredding or mechanical processes. Our UpcyclIT® process, on the other hand, does not require degradation, thus saving energy and resources by allowing a product to immediately be converted into something better.

Because every business and industry uses a number of electronic devices nowadays, the useful life of this equipment will end at some point and disposing of it in an environmentally responsible manner will become necessary.

As the number of these surplus electronics increases dramatically every year, their proper disposal through upcycling becomes even more critical.

Upcycling not only prevents e-waste from going overseas. It also means no energy, resources, pollution, raw material or transportation are needed to recycle assets or manufacture replacement products.

Our UpcyclIT® process also creates a huge opportunity to dispose of electronics for money, which means your business or organization can save taxes and fees.

So if you’re worried about how China’s ban on recycling imports could affect your business’s bottom line, perhaps it’s time to consider an alternative. Upcycling is that alternative.


Surplus Service is a San Francisco, CA Bay Area-based award-winning e-waste management business that specializes in ITAD, medical recycling, electronic liquidation, reverse logistics and data eradication. As the No. 1 electronic reuse and recycling leader, our goal is to provide eco-friendly solutions that lead to the reuse of electronics rather than just having them recycled or end up in a landfill. To learn more about us, call one of our e-waste recycling specialists at (510) 226-0600 or email us at Info@SurplusService.com.

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