Will U.S. innovators meet the China challenge?

Executive Summary

The U.S. recycling industry is being reshaped in the wake of China’s decision to stop importing most post-consumer waste. Recycling firms and municipalities have been scrambling to reprocess the used aluminum, metal, paper, plastic and cardboard that China will no longer take. Waste management companies have sent the material to landfills, incinerators or other countries besides China. Prices for recyclables have plummeted, and the enterprise of recycling materials is no longer profitable for many businesses and governments. As a result, municipalities are increasingly renegotiating contracts with their waste management providers. Still, the collapse of the export market has benefitted some domestic reprocessing companies. It has also invigorated innovative American startups and online recycling platforms.

Key takeaways include:

  • Recycling in the United States started to take off in the 1970s, and Americans now recycle about 66 million tons of material each year. Until recently, about one-third of this was exported, usually to China.

  • Americans generally recycle according to the single-stream model, putting all the material in one bin that is sorted later. This model has led to recyclables that are largely contaminated, sometimes toxic and often unusable.

  • Recycling companies are finding new ways to reprocess the materials, and innovative businesses and online marketplaces are benefitting from China’s decision to stop taking most U.S. recyclables.

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Resources for Further Study



Beavan, Colin, “No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. A writer decides to live for a year in New York City without affecting the environment, and he and his family run into a series of challenges. An independent documentary film with the same title was released in 2010.

Carson, Rachel, “Silent Spring,” Houghton Mifflin, 1962. This seminal book about the dangers of pesticides helped usher in a wave of environmental regulations.

Humes, Edward, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” Avery, 2012. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist takes readers on an exploration of where Americans’ trash goes.

Minter, Adam, “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade,” Bloomsbury, 2013. An Asia-based columnist provides a deep look into the global recycling market and sheds light on the United States’ dependence on China for reprocessing post-consumer waste.


“A Chinese ban on rubbish imports is shaking up the global junk trade,” The Economist, Sept. 29, 2018, http://tinyurl.com/y6vcrs7c. An examination of China’s role in the world recycling market and the major shifts taking place, part of a special report on waste.

Brooks, Amy L., Shunli Wang and Jenna R. Jambeck, “The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade,” Science Advances, June 20, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yaevkn3m. Scientists from the University of Georgia assess the effects of China’s waste ban and detail some of the options for the displaced trash.

Solman, Paul, “Why your recyclables might have no place to go,” PBS Newshour, Oct. 4, 2018, http://tinyurl.com/yawqlsas. A television correspondent explores the current problems facing the recycling industry.

Tierney, John, “The Reign of Recycling,” The New York Times, Oct. 3, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/llfybm4. In a follow-up to a controversial 1996 magazine article, a columnist continues to make the case against recycling.

Reports and Studies

“2018 Glass Recycling Survey,” Glass Recycling Coalition, June 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybmpjptu. A report reveals perceptions about glass recycling, showing, among other things, that respondents are concerned about the cost-effectiveness of recycling glass.

“Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, last updated Sept. 20, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8d8l636. An annual report provides information on U.S. waste generation and recycling rates.

“Rethinking Recycling: How Cities Can Adapt To Evolving Markets,” National League of Cities, Sept. 17, 2018, http://tinyurl.com/ybmcczpt. A report examines the problems the China ban has posed for municipalities and what city leaders can do to adapt.

“US Recycling Economic Information Report,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, last updated Feb. 21, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y9u4wv3k. A 2016 study by the Environmental Protection Agency in conjunction with the National Recycling Coalition shows the economic benefits of recycling.

Homonoff, Tatiana A., “Can Small Incentives Have Large Effects? The Impact of Taxes versus Bonuses on Disposable Bag Use,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, November 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y94gre7k. An assistant professor of economics and public policy at New York University explores how government policies can encourage consumers to take up environmentally friendly behaviors such as adopting reusable shopping bags.

The Next Step


Phipps, Lauren, “Let’s do launch: 3 startups leading in circular economy innovation,” GreenBiz, Dec. 11, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8qnonyo. A startup that seeks ways to cut food waste through the use of a mobile app drew praise at a circular-economy forum.

Saifi, Zeena, Victoria Brown and Tom Page, “Start-up devours pollution with new plastic recycling method,” CNN, March 9, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yddbgwqz. A Canadian startup has perfected a method of breaking down plastic into useful chemicals in an efficient and cost-effective manner, using a catalyst modeled on plastic-eating bacteria.

Shu, Catherine, “Sustainable clothing startup For Days raises $2.8M for its closed-loop manufacturing process,” TechCrunch, Nov. 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yd6tadec. A clothing company that uses a zero-waste business model in which members can recycle used shirts and receive new ones secured $2.8 million in seed funding.

Local Solutions

“Denver Now One Of The Leading Cities In The U.S. To Recycle Paper Cups,” Automatic Vending, Dec. 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9bwhf85. The city of Denver has added to its recycling program paper cups, which were previously considered unrecyclable due to the plastic film often coating the cups for insulation.

“Massachusetts awards $2.6 million to increase recycling,” Recycling Today, Aug. 21, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybb7kyjs. To bolster recycling and increase awareness about proper waste-disposal practices, the state of Massachusetts provided recycling grants to 247 municipalities in 2018.

Oland, Dana, “These Boiseans pioneer a local movement to move past recycling to ‘zero waste,’” Idaho Statesman, updated Sept. 25, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yaapy748. In response to China’s ban on recyclable imports, some residents of Boise, Idaho, have decided to try eliminating waste altogether.


Association of Plastic Recyclers
1776 K St., N.W., Washington, DC 20006
A trade association representing North American companies that obtain, process and sell post-consumer plastic. It works to expand plastic recycling.

Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20460
The federal agency responsible for studying and encouraging policies, including recycling, that affect the environment.

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries
1250 H St., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005
A lobbying group for companies that handle recyclable metal, paper, plastic, glass, electronics and other materials. It calls itself “the Voice of the Recycling Industry.”

Keep America Beautiful
1010 Washington Blvd., Stamford, CT 06901
A nonprofit organization that works with local communities to stop littering, increase recycling and spur beautification projects.

National Waste & Recycling Association
1550 Crystal Drive, Suite 804, Arlington, VA 22202
A trade association representing U.S. waste and recycling companies that advocates for industry-friendly policies.

Natural Resources Defense Council
40 W. 20th St., 11th floor, New York, NY 10011
An organization focused on improving the environment through research, advocacy, public relations campaigns and litigation.

Solid Waste Association of North America
1100 Wayne Ave., Suite 650, Silver Spring, MD 20910
A group that represents solid-waste professionals and provides training, education and research for its members.

Waste Management, Inc.
1001 Fannin, Suite 4000, Houston, TX 77002
The largest waste management company in North America.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680501.n1