Wednesday, February 21, 2024

How China’s import policies have left recycling facilities with tons of waste

Two months worth of recycled cardboard is sitting unused and unsold at New Hanover County's recycling center and China's import policies are to blame.

All over the U.S., recycled material is going unused because of China's "National Sword" import policy. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)
All over the U.S., recycled material is going unused because of China’s ‘National Sword’ import policy. (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Piles of baled, recycled cardboard have been sitting, unused, off US Highway 421 for months.

The material is vulnerable to rain, creating moisture damage that renders the recyclables useless. Tucked away across the recycling plant’s 21 acres, no amount of tarp can save it.

“There’s not enough tarps in Wilmington,” Joe Suleyman, New Hanover County’s director of environmental management, said.

The wait

This scene of is not unique to southeastern North Carolina. Cardboard mountains have formed across the nation as the recycling industry holds out for a higher price that may never come.

Last year, China enacted “National Sword,” a group of policies which effectively halted U.S. recyclable exports.

The policies were intended to encourage Chinese domestic production using its own recyclables by tightening contamination restrictions.

Before, a small amount of contamination in recyclables baled and prepared for industrial production was accepted by Chinese vendors.

Now, Suleyman said, China won’t accept any more than .01 percent contamination. For a bale of cardboard, “one plastic bag in it and they’ll reject the whole container.”

“It’s really just an unrealistic goal that they put in place to protect their own domestic recycling industries,” Suleyman said. 

So they’re saying, why are we importing all this stuff from the U.S. when we can have our own?” Suleyman asked.

To slow belts and add additional labor to the production line to meet China’s new contamination standards would significantly cut into profits.

The southeastern facility is in a partnership with Sonoco Recycling, a for-profit enterprise that is guaranteed a stream of materials from New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties.

Sonoco has asked New Hanover County’s plant to hold out and not sell its prepared material for a lower price.

“Sonoco is hedging the market, hoping that China’s ability to create infrastructure won’t move fast enough where they’ll have to start importing stuff again because Christmas is not that far away and they’re going to have to start making more stuff to send back to us,” Suleyman said.

Every day, 13 trucks would head out with materials to be placed on shipping containers for Chinese use. It’s been two months- at least 440 truckloads worth- and barely any movement.

Wake-up call

China’s new policies have forced domestic companies to look at ways to make use of the recyclables, instead of shipping them abroad.

“I think, quite honestly, we got kind of lazy because it was so easy to send things off,” said Marjie Griek, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. 

Stockpiling products until it turns to debris is wasting resources across the states.

“They want to sell it, they want this material recycled, but if you have no place to go with it, you may simply not have a choice,” Griek said. 

The solution? Pave a way for infrastructure stateside that could make use of the material.

“I think that it’s kind of a wake-up call for the industry because we have been very lucky in having markets outside the country that wanted our materials.”

Joe Suleyman looks toward one of New Hanover County's piles of baled cardboard, going unused due to China's import policies. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Joe Suleyman looks toward one of New Hanover County’s piles of baled cardboard, going unused due to China’s import policies. (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)

Johanna Ferebee can be reached at or @j__ferebee on Twitter

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