To an extent almost unimaginable, the developed world “recycled” literally billions of tons of waste over decades—metals, plastics, paper, wood—by shipping it to the People’s Republic of China on Chinese ships returning from delivering Chinese goods for sale in developed countries. China accepted it all, paid for it, and used its huge and eager workforce—paid often less than one-tenth of comparable U.S. labor—to transform whatever was in truth recyclable into materials for its industrial-manufacturing-construction powerhouse.
In fact, though, as we now know, somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of what was promiscuously shipped out of the developed economies to be “recycled” was actually dumped by China, as unusable, into landfills and the oceans of Southeast Asia, where it has become a major cause and poster-child of environmentalists as an “island” (sometimes) or a “sea” (sometimes) of floating plastic waste.
Today, we know this in far more detail and know that the developed world never really faced the “economics” of recycling—impossible without the market pricing system. We know it now because, on the first day of 2018, China announced to the world its “National Sword Policy.”
No longer would China accept and pay for the hundreds of millions of tons of often unrecyclable trash from the developed world, trash arriving in China so hopelessly mixed, dirty, and loaded with impurities that China was polluting its own country and also its coastal waters. China was finished with this arrangement. Henceforth, “recyclables” shipped to China must be 99.5 percent pure or, to put it another way, limited to one-half of one percent impurities. Plastic imports to China have plummeted 99 percent.FEE.org
And similarly, when the LADWP decommissioned the plastic shade balls on one of its reservoirs, I got a call from a farmer in Northern California. He wanted to know if he could be given those plastic balls to cover his holding ponds. I called around and learned, among other things, the LADWP was unable to recycle those balls. Over years floating in the reservoir, they pick up enough grit that they ruin the machines designed to shred recyclable plastic. So the only alternative left was to send them to a landfill. Or to find someone willing to take them off our hands.
After a couple of days of inquiry, we made arrangements to ship them to this farmer, and everyone was happy.
Because the farmer wanted the balls to float on top of his holding pond, I did emphasize that the balls were to be shipped intact, and not crushed or shredded. This was because over the years, I’ve learned the obvious is far from obvious to everyone.