Recycling U.S. Garbage Is A Billion Dollar Industry In China

If you live in New York or San Francisco – or any of the other 9,800 municipalities across the country with a recycling program – the process is probably familiar to you: separate the plastics, glass, metal, and cardboard, placing it in separate bins for the city to collect.

But exactly where does your garbage go ?

The U.S. produced 176 million tons (equal to 78,000 Statues of Liberty) of inorganic waste in 2011, 66 million tons of which was recycled.

Part of that was processed by the large U.S. recycling industry, which directly employs about 138,000 people, according to (pdf, page 6) the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISIR).

But a lot of the U.S. garbage output is actually collected wholesale and shipped off to other countries, China being the largest importer by far.

Mountains of garbage

A total of 56 million tons of recyclables (both from businesses and consumers), valued at $39 billion, was exported from the U.S. in 2011, according to (pdf, page 7) the ISIR. Over $11.5 billion’s worth of this went to China.

It’s driven by a booming scrap industry, which processes the garbage into cheap materials for China’s huge manufacturing industry.

In fact, scrap is America’s single largest export to China, above cars, airplanes, and soybeans, according to the Great Lakes Trade Adjustment Assistance Center.

However, some of the scrap is not being processed in a timely manner, causing some villages and towns to pile up with literal mountains of garbage, which actually led the Chinese government to place a ban on the import of certain common plastics early in 2013. Hundreds of tons of garbage was sent back, at a cost of $2,100 per container, according to Quartz.

And as investment in plastics recycling plants is taking place almost exclusively outside of the U.S., the options are either to find another place to dump plastic, or to take care of it at home.

This could be an opportunity for the recycling industry in the U.S. – but until the recycling capability is expanded, some states risk the same trashpile troubles as China.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Ole Skaar