China’s Recycling Crackdown Will Make Waste Disposal a Whole Lot Harder in Silicon Valley

China’s crackdown on imported scrap paper and plastics is about to shake up the global market, and it will likely bring major changes to Silicon Valley’s local recycling programs.

By the start of 2018, China intends to ban imports of 24 types of papers and plastics as part of a militantly titled “National Sword” campaign to reduce contamination and build its own recycling systems. Beijing detailed the plan to the World Trade Organization over the summer, which prompted fears that an influx of leftover recycling scraps will pile up in U.S. landfills.

San Jose’s Environmental Services Department has been in talks with the city’s recycling contractors about how to deal with the effect of China’s toughening-up on import standards. It’s unclear how the ban will impact local landfill diversion requirements, but the city is now assessing regulatory challenges over storing and stockpiling additional recyclables in case of a market slowdown.

National Sword will have an outsized impact on California, which ships about 60 percent of its recyclables to China, according to a memo authored by San Jose’s Environmental Services director Kerrie Romanow. More scrupulous inspections have already slowed exports, she wrote, prompting a call throughout the West Coast for consumers to reduce waste and recycle correctly.

San Jose’s recycling processors are telling the city that the value of some exported scraps has fallen to the point that they’re making little to no profit, a shift that follows a gradual price increase of the past few years. Revenue this year is on track to surpass that of 2016, but it’s unclear how the Chinese ban will affect the bottom line in 2018.

This past spring, the City Council directed the environmental services division to renegotiate its four residential solid waste contracts. National Sword now stands to dramatically change the terms of those agreements. Romanow said the city has to figure out whether the market uncertainty should be reflected in customer rate structures and program design or performance metrics, such as the contractor’s landfill diversion rate and public outreach requirements.

Romanow plans to deliver a status report on the negotiations to the council in early 2018.

An upside to the import ban is that it could force U.S. consumers to think twice about what they toss in their recycling bins. San Jose took significant strides to cut waste thanks to a plastic bag ban passed in 2012 and a polystyrene ban in 2014, and the Environmental Services Department is exploring more ways to get people to curb the amount of junk they throw away. One idea being bandied about is an outreach campaign to cut back on junk.

Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the Santa Clara County Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission has earmarked $100,000 for a two-year consulting contract to work on sustainability initiatives throughout the South Bay.

At the state level, San Jose is in discussion with CalRecycle about how to shape a policy for all of California to reduce the amount of packaging that ends up in the waste stream.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. San Jose’s decision years ago to allow people to throw all recyclables in one cart was probably a big mistake as you end up with a lot of contaminated and unusable junk. Also, much better outreach is needed to teach people how to recycle properly. Cities have different requirements and it is confusing to remember what is and isn’t recyclable (pizza boxes are a good example; people think they are recyclable because they are cardboard, but some cities don’t want them in the recycling because they are covered in grease). Many people don’t realize that they shouldn’t throw unopened cans and plastic containers full of leftovers in the recycling. Paper and cardboard that’s mixed with cans and plastic gets covered with food waste. Etc.

  2. > One idea being bandied about is an outreach campaign to cut back on junk.

    I’m really offended by the term “outreach”.

    It’s just a touchy-feely progressive way of saying “hard sell” or “in your face marketing”.

    I’m putting “outreach” on my list of banned terms, along with “vibrant”.

  3. From the progressive dictionary

    Vibrant vy-brant adj. A city built beyond the capacity of services or natural resources, with high populations of tribalist and homeless. Often accompanied by the smell of urine and defecation.

    It’ll just go elsewhere, either Africa or India. Neither country gives 2 craps about the environment. In Africa they burn the plastic insulation off wiring to get to the copper.

  4. It is extremely important to have your own waste management technology. China’s waste import ban is not only a challenge but also an opportunity. In California, we have learned a kind of machine for Styrofoam recycling, with the screwing technology, it can compress the waste foam at a ratio of 50:1, which is the most efficient Styrofoam disposal method. Maybe there are recycling machines to handle other waste materials. Anyway, we should do the waste recycling work with joint effort.
    If you or anyone you know would be interested or want to learn more about “foam recycling machine”, please email Lucy at [email protected] or call her at +1 909 509 4199. Thanks and hope to hear from u!

  5. Most of my recycled waste is paper (junk mail from banks, companies and real estate agents etc). We need to triple taxes on newspaper, envelope and paper sold in CA and double postage for these items to deter junk mail. Also we need to make recycle plastic locally a profitable biz.

  6. For a start people could quit buying the San Jose Mercury,which is certainly a waste of paper at this point. Then again their readership has dwindled so much that it wouldn’t likely make a significant difference. How about grinding all the paper & plastic into small bits & compressing it into interlocking blocks (like big Legos) ? Then we could give the blocks to the homeless to build their own tiny portable houses,thus killing two birds with one stone. The city could use them to build restrooms for the homeless & we could call all of them blockheads. I understand that there are already a lot of blockheads at City Hall,so this would seem to be an appropriate recognition for all of their other dubious escapades. Maybe they could get a block grant from the federal government at HUD (Housing & Urban Development) & an award for their ingenious recycling proposal. Or they could just use all of the shipping containers no longer needed to ship recyclables to China & modify them to house the homeless. They’re portable,stackable & east to transport when your brand new neighbors have worn out their welcome.

  7. I think neighborhood burns weekly is a great idea. Cardboard, paper, napkins, etc and have a fire fighter on hand.

    With these burns, show how a little peanut oil will change a burn. Show how fast plastic and rubber burns…weekly.

    Show the difference in smells of material burning so general public can see why we have spare the air days. Wood and paper smoke is tolerable, it’s clothing and other stuff that human bodies aren’t used to coping with

    Oh and bees and flies and maggots buzz around food products. We get stopped at the border here to see if we are carrying fruit, same thing in china.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *