A worker sorts plastic bottles at a recycling center in China.

Last year, the Chinese government tightened its restrictions on recyclable trash exported by the U.S. China has historically imported 45% of the world’s plastic and paper waste since 1992 with contamination rates as high as 5% per bale. Now, China only accepts bales containing less than 1% of those impurities. It is a big change that will be challenging to meet.

“The Chinese waste import restrictions have disrupted recycling programs throughout the United States, and affected tens of millions of tons of scrap and recyclables since they were imposed in 2017,” said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. “They are the most important change to these programs in at least a decade.”

These new restrictions have drastically impacted our cities’ recycling programs. To process and sort the materials, many recycling centers across the country have had to increase prices to meet China’s lower contamination rate for acceptable material leading to consumers taking a financial hit. Items that do not meet quality standards for recycling bales must be shipped to other locations, such as in Vietnam. That means higher transportation costs, which ultimately affect residents and businesses.

Recycling programs are taking further efforts to reduce impurities in our recycling bales by raising awareness on the issue. Educating consumers on how to properly sort wet food material like banana peels, coffee grounds, and food-soiled paper to keep recycled paper dry and clean will be critical for complying with China’s new quality requirements.


  • The best thing you can do is properly sort your materials, making sure that wet, non-recyclable items are composted or tossed in the garbage.
  • Give your recyclables a quick rinse, take your plastic bags back to stores or reuse them, and compost your food scraps (backyard composting is an option if this service is unavailable in your community).
  • See your cities recycling guidelines and sorting guides for a list of what goes where (confusingly, accepted items vary by city due to different processing capabilities).

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