Part 1 – Worldwide Recycling: Why is it changing?

October 1, 2019

“Items are only recyclable if someone is willing to purchase and use your recycled material to be made into new, marketable products.” In recent years, the recycling market has become vastly more complicated, and consumers are now feeling the rippling negative effects. The domestic capacity and rules for all businesses that process and manufacture recyclable commodities have been restricted worldwide. This means a large number of Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF’s) no longer have overseas markets available that they once did and only a select few local North American markets available. With that being said, a large majority of collectors have chosen to restrict accepted materials in their recycling programs – or sadly close their doors completely.

China is the largest manufacturer of consumable products in the world. In the past, they’ve looked to North America for recycled fiber content and were, “…the primary overseas destination for recyclable commodities worldwide,” (ReMM Consulting Group, 2017) because their softwood forestry industry was not viable to keep up to consumer demand. Asian recycling manufacturers not only had the capacity to handle large outputs of recyclable materials from North America, they were willing to cut costs for transportation and processing; even less than processing in neighbouring provinces. But, due to increased contaminated recycling feedstocks, the Chinese government began redefining the standards for all recycling markets in terms of acceptable levels of contamination; with all other countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippians following suit shortly afterward.  

Policy Changes

Operation Green Fence (2013)

 This policy was implemented in January of 2013, with a sole purpose of protecting Chinese manufacturers from low-quality recyclables, reduce contamination from imported recyclable materials, and to reclaim China’s clean reputation. This policy lowered the acceptable contamination levels in baled recyclable material from 7% to 1.5%.

National Sword (2017)

After Operation Green Fence was a failure, the Chinese government implemented the next policy in February 2017. National Sword nearly halted all recycling programs worldwide when it raised industry standards to only allow 0.5% contamination for all material types being sold for reuse. This policy was intended to reduce contamination further and aim for a circular-economy model. In a study by Mo et al., 2009, it was noted that the focus of this model would help to protect China’s recycling efforts as their own waste accumulation was problematic. China primarily faces domestically produced wastes which allowed them to implement a policy to cease smuggling of wastes into the country from external sources.

Import Ban (2017)

The most recent policy changes occurred on December 31, 2017. This policy allowed China to, “Ban the imports of four classes and 24 types of solid wastes including plastics from living sources, unsorted waste paper, and waste textile materials,” (ReMM Consulting Group, 2017). All changes to the recycling markets were made in an effort to address environmental concerns, worker safety, and quality of finished product.

China has implied that if their policies, bans, and additional efforts do not make a difference, a full ban on all solid waste imports could be coming as soon as 2020. As the demand for cleaner recyclable standards increased worldwide, so did processing costs for collection organizations, and manufactures; placing a heavy burden on our domestic markets. In order to react effectively, new domestic regulations, practices, and equipment must be at least equally as progressive.



Business Casual. 2019. Here’s why China is killing the global recycling industry. Accessed at: Accessed on: 30 September 2019.

Hopewell J., Dvorak R., and Kosior E. 2009. Plastics recycling: Challenges and opportunities. Accessed at: Accessed on: 1 August 2018.

Mo H., Wen Z., and Chen J. 2009. China’s recyclable resources recycling stem and policy: A case study in Suzhou. Accessed at: Accessed on: 24 July 2018.

ReMM Consulting Group. 2017. Exporting recyclable commodities overseas from canada. Accessed at: Accessed on: 2 August 2017.

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