Plastic China
Is this the end of recycling? 9/9/2019 | Jeff Jacobs, The Brand Protector
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You drink a soft drink or water out of a single-use plastic bottle and make sure you drop it in the recycling bin at work or tote it to the curb in the tub at home. You’ve read up on recycling, and how it works, because all the awareness being created right now has caught your attention. You’ve probably even talked to your clients about what they can do about being more Earth-friendly, maybe even made some sourcing suggestions. You know paper and cardboard goes to mills, glass is washed and re-used in cities that still recycle glass, or it’s smashed and melted, like metal and plastic are. Food, and anything else carelessly tossed in with the recycling, is burned or sent to the landfill. Even if it doesn’t work exactly like that, you’ve likely heard that nearly half of all paper and cardboard, and two-thirds of plastics materials designated as “to be recycled” will be loaded onto container ships to be sent to Europe or Asia for recycling. Problem solved, no big deal, and you’ve probably not given it another thought. Most of us haven’t. 

The problem is, that’s how it used to work. You see, on the first day of 2018, China, the world’s largest market for recycled waste, essentially shut its doors. Under its National Sword policy, China prohibited twenty-four types of waste from entering the country, arguing that what was coming in was too contaminated. The policy shift was partly attributed to the impact of a documentary, Plastic China, which went viral before censors pulled it from China’s internet. If you don’t have time to watch it yourself (which you should) here is the gist of the documentary: Newspaper articles on Prince William’s grand wedding are used as a magic cape for the kids; eye patches from Qantas Airways are utilized as the protective mask for factory workers, and a Dutch SIM card brings in a message of “Welcome to China” once inserted to a cell phone.  Welcome to the land of “Plastic China.” It’s incredibly sad, and more than a little startling to see, and it’s no wonder it was taken down in China. 

As the world’s biggest plastic waste importer, China used to receive ten million tons of waste per year from most of the developed countries of the world. With high external costs impacting the local environment and health, the plastic waste was reborn in the Chinese plastic workshops as “recycled” raw materials for the factories, creating products to feed the insatiable appetites of the developed countries. Waste that was ultimately exported back to whence it came with the new face of clothing or toys.

So, what are you going to do about it yourself, especially since you thought sorting and properly managing your recyclables was working just fine? Let’s face it, for a long time, Americans have had little incentive to consume less. It’s inexpensive to buy products, and it’s even cheaper to throw them away at the end of their short lives. About twenty-five percent of what ends up in those blue recycling bins of ours is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. For decades, all of us have been throwing just about whatever we wanted into the recycle bin and then sending it to China, where low-paid workers sorted through it and cleaned it up for us. That’s no longer an option. 

We’ve talked here before about the challenge of educating people about what can and can’t be recycled, even as the number of single-use products we buy every day grows. Here’s the thing: Americans, at best, tend to be “aspirational” about their recycling, tossing an item in the blue bin because it makes them feel less guilty about consuming it and throwing it away. How about you, do you feel marginally better sneaking the wire hangers, pizza boxes, unrinsed ketchup bottles, and yogurt containers into the bin every now and then?

The buck needs to stop with you, and with all of us, and I hope, with your clients as well. We’ve got to do better, even if it requires working at it a bit. But it’s worth it. First, know your community’s capabilities. The viability of recycling varies tremendously based on where you live and work. San Francisco, for example, can recycle its glass back into bottles in six weeks, according to Recology. Many other cities have found that glass is so heavy and breaks so easily that it is impossible to find a place that will recycle it. Akron, Ohio, is just one of many cities that ended glass recycling with the China policy changes. Where we live in Greenville, South Carolina did too, unfortunately.

The best way to fix this mess is simple: Buy less stuff and use whatever we do buy for as long as we can. That would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste of natural resources created when products are made. All those toothpaste tubes, shopping bags, and water bottles that didn’t exist 50 years ago need to go somewhere, and we can’t send our problems to China any longer. The reality, for Americans anyway, is that creating this much waste has a price we haven’t had to pay—so far. “We’ve had an ostrich-in-the-sand approach to the entire system,” said Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America. “We’re producing a lot of waste ourselves, and we should take care of it ourselves.” Awareness of the problem is a great place to start, and hopefully getting the conversation started with others after looking at your own consumption and recycling and reuse habits. Having dialogue with clients about sustainability and what we might collectively do better can help effect some much-needed change.

Jeff Jacobs has been an expert in building brands and brand stewardship for 40 years, working in commercial television, Hollywood film and home video, publishing, and promotional brand merchandise. He’s a staunch advocate of consumer product safety and has a deep passion and belief regarding the issues surrounding compliance and corporate social responsibility. He retired as executive director of Quality Certification Alliance, the only non-profit dedicated to helping suppliers provide safe and compliant promotional products. Before that, he was director of brand merchandise for Michelin. You can find him volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem, traveling the world with his lovely wife, or enjoying a cigar at his favorite local cigar shop. Connect with Jeff on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram, or reach out to him at

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