Numerous Chinese millionaires were minted as recycling businesses started and blossomed. Sure, they paid for the world’s plastic and paper trash, but they made far more money from processing it and selling the resulting raw materials.
But last year the Chinese government dropped a bombshell on the world recycling business: It cut back almost all imports of trash. And now a lot of that plastic gets shipped to other countries that don’t have the capacity to recycle it or dispose of it safely.
A billionaire is born
In 1995, Zhang Yin started a paper recycling company in China called Nine Dragons. She would become China’s first female billionaire. China wanted scrap paper and plastic to recycle into more products, and Yin seized the market.
Martin Bourque runs one of the oldest recycling operations in the U.S. as part of theEcology Center in Berkeley, Calif. “There were brokers going around the globe buying up every scrap of plastic they could find and paying top dollar for it,” he says.
And there was this brilliant tactic to increase profits: West Coast ports in the U.S. were full of empty Chinese shipping containers that had come to deliver goods to American consumers. “So it made a lot of sense to send [waste] out though the port in an empty ship that was going back anyway,” Bourque says.
For American recyclers, it was too good a deal to pass up. Many types of plastic — bags, cups, plastic wrap, thin film — gum up sorting machines at materials recovery centers in the U.S. and is of almost no value to recyclers... These new dumping destinations aren’t likely to last. Already, Vietnam and Malaysia are cutting back imports of scrap plastic because they are overwhelmed. They can’t handle the huge diversion of plastic to their countries since China shut out imports.
Recycling experts say it’s a time of reckoning for their industry and that wealthy countries need to stop exporting to countries that can’t handle it.