Episode 03 – China Ban on Recyclables

Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledge base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This series will delve into hot topics, current standards and practices, ways to design better spaces, and specify materials that benefit not only us, as consumers, but the world as a whole. Members of CaraGreen, a sustainable materials distributor, and other industry leaders weigh in throughout the series. This is Build Green, Live Green.


In this third episode, we will be discussing a recent event that is having a major impact on the sustainability movement: the recent ban on recycled materials in China. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton and Kim Loftis of CaraGreen, our shows producer and sustainability think tank.


JESSICA: Hi this is Jessica with CaraGreen.

KIM: And Kim with CaraGreen.

JESSICA: We are here with our podcast, Build Green Live Green, and today we are talking about recycling and why is recycling a topic right now. Probably not for the reason that most people think. We kind of-

KIM: Probably not.

JESSICA: No. We kind of recycle and its out of sight and out of mind and you put your recycling in your recycling bin and set it out on the curb and it goes away. No one really thinks about “where does it actually go?”. And what has happened very recently, the first of the year anyway, was China put a ban on US recycling imports and a lot of people don’t know that a lot of our recycling is exported to China.

KIM: So, it’s not staying in our country, we are not reusing it, China has been taking it all.

JESSICA: Yes. Maybe not all but a large percent. So, China has been taking our recycling, think plastic, paper, scrap metal, things like that. And they’ve been putting it into products over there. It made sense for them and it made sense for us. But what we not do well is clean recycling. Often times we will throw contaminated food containers in with our recycling.

KIM: So that just means like cleaning out your peanut butter jar?

JESSICA: Rinse out that peanut butter jar. It’s a little bit of extra work for you, but that dirty peanut butter jar can cause that whole bail of recycling to be scrapped.

KIM: Wow.

JESSICA: So, China, as of January 1st, said “we can use our own waste, new need to come up with better ways internally to manage our waste. So, US, Europe, Japan, Australia, we don’t want your recycling anymore.”

KIM: Wow.

JESSICA: And it has caused a huge downstream, or upstream, effect, that we are just starting to realize in many different ways, When I talk about recycling and you know where its going to go now, how does that relate to the building environment? Why does that pertain to CaraGreen and our building materials and the built environment in general?

KIM: Yeah, so we wanted to discuss this topic because a lot of our audience are people who are maybe eco-savvy or who consider themselves sustainable people, so recycling is going to be something that they do on a regular basis.

JESSICA: And their expectation is if they recycle, they’ve done something good, and were here to tell them, maybe not. Yeah. You know your you just putting that in the bin is not taking that far enough, so we are going to extend the burden on our listeners of what recycling means now. Okay, so how does this topic, China’s recycling ban, have an impact on CaraGreen? Why is it important to cover that topic in this podcast?

KIM: Well, since we are a building products distributor, a lot of the manufacturers that we work with actually use a lot of recycled content, whether its recycled paper, recycled glass, or recycled plastics-

JESSICA: So, shouldn’t this be good for them, now that there is more of it?

KIM: You would think that it would be a good thing for them and in some ways, it might be-

JESSICA: Right, it might be more, so their raw materials will be cheaper

KIM: Sure, but there’s kind of an over supply now. We don’t have enough products, building products or however you want to look at it, that are using recycled materials to use up that waste steam.

JESSICA: Okay. So, building products, buildings in general, have an obligation here to try to help repurpose some of that waste.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: How do buildings contribute to the waste stream now?

KIM: Well, unfortunately its very negatively. We, the building industry, produces 40% of global waste.


KIM: So, it’s a huge amount whether its from demolishing buildings and you know a lot of them not getting reused or whether it’s a brand-new building-

JESSICA: Right, or temporary materials used during building construction.

KIM: Absolutely, yeah, so there’s a lot of things that, were on the kind of finish materials side-

JESSICA: CaraGreen.

KIM: CaraGreen is, so the countertops, flooring, wall panels, things like that, so we don’t really see the construction of the building, the core of the building-

JESSICA: Like concrete.

KIM: Yes, we’re not involved in that part quite as much, but we are still privy to that sort of information. I think that it is something that a lot of people don’t really think about contributing a lot of waste.

JESSICA: Okay. The punchline here is that construction is one of the largest contributors to waste. And if you build more intelligently with products that actually used some of this recycled material, which now has no home, then it would mitigate this problem. Some companies are already using recycled materials. We talked about PaperStone uses recycled paper, IceStone uses recycled glass, Durat solid surface uses recycled plastics already as does Kirei EchoPanel. So, we represent some companies that are already using recycled material, recycled content, it kind of gives us a platform to elevate this recycle ban because we represent small manufacturers. We see it as an opportunity for big building product manufacturers to start incorporating some of this material that has no home.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: It’s really a call to action to building product suppliers as well as building owners and project managers and architects to use products that are helping address this recycling problem.

KIM: Yeah, and the problem, I think, has multiple facets. So not only are we now having these recyclables that are no longer really recyclable because there is no where for them to go, so they are going into landfills, but you are also creating other issues on top of that because of the issue that we have with landfills, we don’t really have enough space for them and things like that. It’s a multipronged issue that really needs to be and can be addressed from the building industry standpoint.

JESSICA: So, let’s talk about the policy and what happened. Its been known that China has been thinking about this for some time. They looked at their own recycling and said “well, we could use our own materials, and why are we taking other people’s garbage.” And the reason they are calling it garbage, mind you, is not, as we said it was recycling, but because of the high contamination levels, they can’t use it, and they have to dispose of it. So, what they are saying is “you are going to give me this stuff that is so contaminated that I can’t use it.” So, they not only banned, initially I think it was 24 different waste streams from entering the county-

KIM: Okay.

JESSICA: They enacted a policy saying they can only have half a percent of contamination, which is way down from where it had been. So, now a lot less material is coming in and the material that is coming in goes through a very thorough inspection. So, since 2013 or 2014 they have a policy which was called The Green Fence and that was the beginning for this and now they have this National Sword Policy which is, you know, it involves these inspections that are really stringent inspections at the borders.

KIM: Okay. So that’s kind of how they are enforcing that our plastics, or recyclables in general, are not getting through.

JESSICA: Exactly. And they have certain types of plastics that they have just banned altogether. And they just recently banned post-industrial plastic, which was not part of the initial ban.

KIM: Oh, wow. So how will this affect the recycling facilities here in the US? Are some of them already feeling the effects of this?

JESSICA: Yes. So, the recycling facilities here in the US are not set up to achieve that low contamination level. They just don’t have the sorting techniques, they weren’t built to capture all those things. So, they are having to be retrofit which can be very expensive.

KIM: Okay.

JESSICA: But because of the ban on the waste streams altogether in certain places, they are not getting money for their recyclables, so a lot of places are either shutting down or they are having to charge more. They used to be able to sell their recycling, right?

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: And now they are having to pay to get people to take it. A lot of municipalities are being impacted. Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington have all got waivers. And a waiver is basically permission to send that recycling to a landfill because-

KIM: Wow.

JESSICA: -the facilities are just filling up with recyclables and there’s nobody to take them. So the only place to put them is in a landfill. As this continues to happen, and you can see there’s a website called wastedive.com and it tracks waste by all 50 states.

KIM: Okay.

JESSICA: Yeah, so you can go see how your state is affected.

KIM: Oh really? That’s really helpful.

JESSICA: Its really alarming.

KIM: Yeah, that is so sad. When you told me that, I kind of got chills because its very upsetting as- another reason why we wanted to cover this topic is because a lot of our listeners are going to be eco-savvy, kind of sustainable people, that respect and recycle themselves.


KIM: And as that type of person, I, you know, get very upset at these numbers and hearing these things

JESSICA: Come on. You get upset in the office when Sandy puts her Dr. Pepper bottle in the trashcan.

KIM: I do! I do! I feel like it makes a difference.

JESSICA: It does, it does. And I- probably not as much at the old office, I didn’t want to pick Big D’s, you know, to-go container-

KIM: Bojangles.

JESSICA: Yeah, Bojangles, out of there. But a lot of times I see people throw things away and I’ll either ask them to put it in the recycling. But yeah, it bothers me, and it bothers my children. Which I get excited about now. They recognize that triangle. So, I’m so proud that I taught them to see that. They are little, taught them to see that and to know at that age, where I see grown adults who don’t take the time to recycle, but its only as good as the downstream management of that recycling. So, this ban by China, I have a Google alert for “China recycling ban,” I get 10-15 articles every day.

KIM: Wow.

JESSICA: I have other Google alerts, I don’t get anything. But this I get 10 or 15 a day because it is pushing itself right back to the curb and so they banned it in China and it’s just working its way through the recycling stream and it’s going to land on your doorstep. The town of Cary is going to give me a bill and its going to have a much higher fee for disposing of recyclables. Some places have gone from single stream to dual stream already, where single stream is nice because you can put everything in one bin.

KIM: Sure.

JESSICA: But a lot of places are having to separate that because they have a plan for this waste, but they don’t have a plan for this waste anymore.

KIM: I see. Okay. So, they are collecting it as a recyclable, but they might not actually be recycling it-


KIM: -because they don’t have a way to. Okay.

JESSICA: So, you asked what will happen to the facilities. They are going to shut down, they are going to have to pay for an expensive retrofit, to meet the requirements of China.

KIM: And what are their incentives for even investing in that?

JESSICA: Exactly. What I find really interesting, that’s been happening over the last few months, China has come to the US and started buying recycling facilities or papermills. They are coming here to get access to the waste that they can’t get over there anymore.

KIM: I see.

JESSICA: So that they can control it. They are building facilities over here, they are building a facility in Georgia, to sort the waste, so now they are going to be able to control-

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: -the contamination levels and things like that of incoming materials. So, we create to recycle all this waste and they are going to come up with a smarter, better way to recycle it because we’re not.

KIM: Right. And it always surprised me that recycling facilities don’t have a robust way of sorting things so I’m hoping that, you know, there will be some companies that come in and create some really awesome inventions to help out with these problems because I think there is a lot of innovation that’s needed.

JESSICA: Yes, and I think that you look at these companies that have come on to the scene, like the Tesla’s, that come out with these great ideas, and you’re right, GoPro, the camera company, you know, they’re entrepreneurial, they are kind of in that same world.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: They care, and they are coming up with a camera that is actually helping at these sort facilities to identify certain contaminants, certain types of things, certain materials using this high-grade camera, this optical eye sort of thing that is going to help these sorting facilities.

KIM: Okay.

JESSICA: So, there is innovation happening, I just don’t know how the timing is going to coincide.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: All of this recycling can’t just build up and be stored and the solutions aren’t coming fast enough. And a great resource for this is ISRI, which is the International Scrap Recycling Institute, and they are in Washington, DC. We toured their facility, and they had IceStone, they had Kirei Echopanel, PaperStone. They had all of these great recycled products and that’s the thing about our products. They tell that recycling story and it’s a great story. But the scrap issue is much larger it’s the metals and the plastics and the mixed paper, that’s really where the problem is. And again, this goes back to we are not very good at recycling to begin with.

KIM: Wow. My parents live in a very small town in North Carolina and they accept more plastic than Raleigh does, and it blows my mind. Its so funny, my parents come to see me, and they are like “you don’t take number 9?” or whatever it is. And I’m like “no, do you?” It’s crazy to me that a smaller town accepts things like that but you’re right, there’s multiple things that even in a big city, are not accepted. So. And it’s a really low number.

JESSICA: So, let’s talk a little bit about the plastic problem. Everyone knows about the Great Pacific Plastic Patch.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: Currently, only 9% of our plastic is recycled.

KIM: Wow! That’s such a low number.

JESSICA: I know. So, think about the problem we have today, and that’s only 9%. So even if we get better at recycling and recycle more, its just going to create a bigger problem.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: So, do you know where these, the people that were exporting our recycling, its not just going to landfill.

KIM: Okay. What are they using it for?

JESSICA: They are sending it to other countries. So other countries don’t have this ban, so countries in Asia like Thailand, Vietnam-

KIM: And what are they doing with it?

JESSICA: I mean they are cleaning it and then-

KIM: Oh, okay. It’s the contamination issue.

JESSICA: Right, in some cases they’ll clean it and give it to China. Right, or they will use it for something there, lot of production that used to be in China has moved to some of these countries. So, you know, China was actually, using it for products but some of this material they can break down and use for products.

KIM: So, is that manual labor in those countries?

JESSICA: It can be, in some cases, but they may have more robust facilities in others. The problem is they are not set up to the scale that China was, so they started taking waste from other countries, and it is not just the US. This is posing a problem for the entire-

KIM: I was going to ask you if there were other countries involved.

JESSICA: It is causing a huge problem. It is a global recycling problem that this has caused. Since 1992, 45% of plastic waste has gone to China.

KIM: Wow.

JESSICA: So, we’ve been doing it for the last 25 years, sending plastic waste. There’ a statistic 25% of all recycling is contaminated and must be sent to landfill. We aren’t recycling enough, we aren’t recycling well, China is not going to clean up our mess anymore, and so, we have a problem.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: Our solution, our thought, as CaraGreen, you know, this kind of call to action to building material companies, to do what our partners are already doing. PaperStone has recycled paper. They are taking that out of the waste stream. IceStone is taking glass out of the waste steam. Durat is taking plastic out of the waste stream, they are now looking at taking ocean plastic out of the ocean.

KIM: Oh, that’s exciting.

JESSICA: I think that will be really neat.

KIM: And I think one thing to note, since this is a podcast and we are not physically showing our materials, these materials are really beautiful as well. I think when recycled products first came out, they were a little bit cheesy and maybe not the most beautiful thing out there but there has been a fair amount of innovation around these products, and they are really beautiful. And you mentioned before that they really tell a story, so, were finding that when it comes to some of the certifications that we’ve also talked about, if you’re doing a LEED building or a WELL building and you kind of want to tell the story that this is not only a beautifully designed space but a green, sustainable space, and you have an obviously recycled glass countertop, you’re telling that story to the occupants in that space.

JESSICA: Right. And to tie it back to our listeners, they are going to be impacted because, well, their landfills are going to be filling up and they may see recycling programs stopped all together or they may see much higher charges for recycling. And for our listeners that care about the environment, this has got to be infuriating. We can’t handle our own waste, so we were sending it elsewhere. And do you know that, overall, this is going to have a positive environmental impact because China is taking on more responsibility with this issue than we are.

KIM: That’s a really good way to look at it.

JESSICA: Yeah, so the end effect should be positive. We are going to have to get better at it, we can’t just stop doing it all together. We’re going to have to innovate. We going to have to have the GoPro’s come up with things, were going to have to have thought leadership in the recycling space. But what you mentioned earlier is the key. When I go to the grocery store, I bring my own bags. Small thing. It really adds up.

KIM: It really does.

JESSICA: I don’t put my produce in those plastic bags. It doesn’t need to go in there.

KIM: It always boggles my mind when I see somebody get one apple and put it in a bag.

JESSICA: It drives me crazy.

KIM: It really doesn’t make a lot of sense. One thing that I, you know, poke a little fun at but like to remind people is that the slogan is reduce, reuse, recycle and we all think about recycling but reduce is the first word so reducing the amount of single-use plastics or glass or whatever it is, just cutting back on the amount of waste that you are producing, is really going to have a huge impact. And then reusing. So, just like you said with your grocery bags, so many people do that now and its such an easy thing. You are reusing that bag, you know, how many times? I’m sure you’ve used the same ones for years.


KIM: And then you can recycle.

JESSICA: I rinse out Ziploc bags at home.

KIM: I do the same thing!

JESSICA: Unless something was in there that, you know, shouldn’t be reused, but I mean I don’t understand why, yeah, I can’t imagine the amount of Ziploc bags that get thrown out every day. Why are they not reusable?

KIM: The little sandwich baggies-

JESSICA: I know!

KIM: -they drive me nuts. I hate those things.

JESSICA: Its crazy. And that’s why I use, with my kids when I pack their lunch, reusable containers. They are plastic, they are recyclable, but I reuse them over and over. I don’t need to put their stuff in Ziplocs, inside of their lunch bag, or inside of a lunch box. Its fine the way it is, and then I put their snacks in little containers rather than having a bunch of plastic fruit cups and all that stuff.

KIM: Yeah. Yeah. So, I think that’s one thing our listeners can do, is start to become a little bit more savvy in their own lives about the things that they are consuming. And, you know, I’m sure there are a fair amount of our listeners, as well, that are in the design community and they can select materials that have that high recycled content, choose manufacturers that have sourced their materials in a responsible way, and then also encourage their manufacturers reuse their own material.

JESSICA: The carpet industry was getting really good at that, they were getting really good at it, and you know what? No.

KIM: They aren’t doing the recycling?

JESSICA: They don’t do it.

KIM: Really?

JESSICA: I think they do it occasionally, but they do not do it to the extent that they had initially mentioned because cleaning those fibers was just about next to impossible.

KIM: Oh. Yeah. I think carpet is one of the biggest things in our landfills. Carpet and diapers? Were going to have to look that up. I think that those make up a huge percentage of our landfills, because think of, you know, homes that get their carpet replaced every 10 years or so, I mean 10 years kind of sounds like a long time.

JESSICA: Office renovation.

KIM: Apartment complexes.

JESSICA: Just think about the amount of people that are ripping carpet out for hardwood floors.

KIM: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Because carpet is cheap.

JESSICA: And a lot of what’s installed now is pretty toxic and the last place you want it is- yeah. It’s unfortunate. But carpet can also be made from recycled plastic.

KIM: It sure can. Yeah. A lot of the backers of carpet tiles and things like that have incorporated recycled plastic, so we hope to see more manufacturers take this on as part of the responsibility of being in the building industry and contributing to, you know, making the world a better place really.

JESSICA: Right, yeah. I think construction waste is a big part of what ends up in our landfill, it’s the responsibility of those same people that are creating all of that waste to find a way to build better. And create better. Which is one of our favorite taglines at CaraGreen. We have more information on this on our website at www.caragreen.com and we will continue to talk about industry topics. China’s impacting our lives in a lot of ways. This recycling ban is one thing and the other topic we were going to discuss were the quartz tariffs.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: Building materials coming into the US from China and the tax on those. I think that people often associate China with these cheap, kind of, one-time plastic goods, but they didn’t realize that was our recycled waste that was in those goods.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: And China is taking a leadership role, now, in how they are managing their waste streams and their plastic, as well as paper and metals as well. And they are the leader, where I think a lot of assume we are. That’s not to say that China has the greatest recycling programs-

KIM: Sure.

JESSICA: -but they certainly have the infrastructure to recycle because they have been recycling our waste for so long.

KIM: And they are taking an initiative to make a smarter decision and move forward in a way that is hopefully more sustainable for them, even though it’s causing us some issues at the moment.


KIM: China is taking an initiative here to be a little bit more responsible to change our industry and even though its going to be beneficial for them and its kind of hurting us a little right now, hopefully it will kind of even out and be better for everyone.

JESSICA: Yeah, and they are such a big environmental player, they’re responsible for a lot of environmental damage. I feel like they are starting to own that and take action. So, I think, globally, this is a good thing, but we have to address our own problem here, so buying products made here, products with recycled content, and innovating and creating more products that use that material is really kind of what we are asking for here.

KIM: Absolutely.

JESSICA: Yeah, we’ll talk about China and the tariffs.

KIM: And always let us know if there is an industry topic that you are interested in knowing about, we hopefully have some information that we can share with you.

JESSICA: We have a lot of great information on our website at caragreen.com. Take a look and if you see anything that you hear us elaborate on, just email us at [email protected] This was Build Green Live Green. I’m Jessica McNaughton.

KIM: And I’m Kim Loftis. Thanks for joining us.


We offer a wide range of materials made from recycled materials- from countertops made with recycled glass or cladding made from recycled paper. Our full list of products can be found at www.caragreen.com.

For a written manuscript of this episode as well as supporting resources, Visit our website at www.caragreen.com/blog. Want to know more about a specific industry related topic? Shoot us an email at [email protected].