Recycling Chaos In U.S. As China Bans 'Foreign Waste' The U.S. ships a big chunk of its recycled goods to China. But China doesn't want them anymore, and that's leaving the recycling industry in turmoil.

Recycling Chaos In U.S. As China Bans 'Foreign Waste'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We used to send our recycling to China to sort through and get rid of. But now, China says this foreign waste is too dirty, and so it is getting stuck here in the United States, leaving the recycling industry in a pinch. We're going to hear now from two reporters, starting with Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting and EarthFix.

CASSANDRA PROFITA, BYLINE: Recycling is a top priority for Satish and Arlene Palshikar. They're bluish-white house is coated with recycled paint. They recycle their rainwater. They compost their own food waste. And they sort all their recycling into paper bags.

ARLENE PALSHIKAR: The main part of it is paper. Here's some plastic.

PROFITA: Once a month, they load up their Prius and drive to a sorting facility. But recently, they got a shock.

SATISH PALSHIKAR: There was no plastic recycling. And the fellow said, well, we don't take plastic anymore. It should go in the trash.

PROFITA: Without buyers in China, their recycling company doesn't know what to do with all that plastic, so they stop taking it. And a lot of companies are in the same boat, as my colleague Jes Burns found out.

JES BURNS, BYLINE: Here at Rogue Waste Systems in Southern Oregon, about 140 tons of recycling are compressed into 1-ton bales each day. Manager Scott Fowler says there's always non-recyclables mixed in.

SCOTT FOWLER: That bucket right there is obviously a lot of recycled material.

BURNS: There's a roll of linoleum.

FOWLER: Gas cans.

BURNS: A surprising number of knitted sweaters.

FOWLER: Blankets, radiator.

BURNS: Plus things like frozen food cartons and plastic bags that just don't recycle. China doesn't want to sort it, so it sits here. And what do you call recycling with no place to go?

LAURA LEEBRICK: That material out there is garbage. It has no value. There is no demand for it in the marketplace.

BURNS: In the warehouse, Rogue Waste's Laura Leebrick is dwarfed by stacks of these orphaned recycling bales. And outside, employee parking spaces have been taken over by compressed cubes of sour cream containers, broken wine bottles and junk mail.

LEEBRICK: It just keeps coming and coming and coming.

BURNS: Now, Rogue Waste has no choice but to take all of this recycling to the landfill. And across the country, more and more companies are making the same call as the industry scrambles to adapt. Cassandra has more on that.

PROFITA: At Pioneer Recycling near Portland, company president Steve Frank has been shopping for new buyers outside of China.

STEVE FRANK: I have personally moved material to different countries to keep material flowing.

PROFITA: Frank says, without Chinese buyers, U.S. recycling companies are all playing a big game of musical chairs. The music stops when China's ban on waste imports fully kicks in next month.

FRANK: The rest of the world cannot make up that gap. That's where we have what I call a bit of chaos going on.

PROFITA: Adina Adler is with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Her group is trying to convince China to walk back its extremely demanding targets on how clean our recycling exports need to be. Still, she sees an upside.

ADINA ADLER: What China's move is doing is it's really ushering in a new era in recycling.

PROFITA: At an Oregon research facility, piles of cardboard and crumpled newspaper stream by on a conveyor belt. Two robotic arms reach down, they suck up plastic bags and water bottles and drop them into bins. It's the latest innovation from Bulk Handling Systems. CEO Steve Miller says the robot uses cameras and artificial intelligence to separate what's recyclable from what's not.

STEVE MILLER: It actually moves at a rate of 80 picks per minute. A person might only get 30 picks per minute.

PROFITA: Miller says we can make our recycling clean enough for China if we let robots do the work, but these robots don't come cheap and few companies have them. So for now, our best bet may be for us to be more careful about what we put in our recycling bins. For NPR News, I'm Cassandra Profita in Portland.

BURNS: And I'm Jes Burns in the Rogue Valley, Ore.


Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.