China’s Ban on Plastic Waste Imports – What it Means for the US

Source: Capture Resources

For years, the United States sold millions of tons of all kinds of plastic trash to China to be recycled into new products.[1] During the 2010s, China has introduced multiple restrictions and limitations on the influx of recyclables into the country.[2] In the summer of 2017, Chinese leaders formally announced their import intentions in a notice to the World Trade Organization, and a ban to import plastic waste went into force in the beginning of 2018.[3] These restrictions pose a serious problem for the US and other countries because China plays an enormous role in the global recycling process, receiving around 56% of global imports.[4] With imported plastic recyclables continuing to be contaminated, the rising cost of labor, and an abundance of the country’s own potentially recyclable waste, China no longer had the same financial and environmental incentives to accept the world’s waste.[5]

After China’s ban, a lot of the plastic has been shipped to other countries that don’t have the capacity to recycle it or dispose of it safely.[6] As a result, there is no readily available place to send the recyclables from the US, and the US itself lacks sufficient infrastructure to deal with the Chinese restrictions.[7]

This happens at a time when the US is creating more waste than ever.[8] In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, Americans generated 262.4 million tons of waste which amounts to nearly 5 lb. per person a day.[9] That is a 4.5% increase compared to 2010, and a 60% increase compared to 1985.[10]

The American consumer has little to no incentive to produce less plastic waste: it is inexpensive to buy products, and cheap to throw them away. But the real cost is much higher – environmentally and financially. From an environmental standpoint, managing plastic waste produces greenhouse gas emission whether it ends up in landfills, is recycled, or incinerated.[11] From a financial standpoint, it is expensive to ship waste to landfills, and cities have to figure out what to do with all the waste that has previously been shipped to China.[12]

On an international level, with China and the US being members of the World Trade Organization, a possible solution could be that the US initiates a suit as the Chinese restrictions potentially violate the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).[13] The GATT requires countries to teat goods from other countries the same way that similar domestic goods are treated, and the US could possibly argue that China has failed to follow this obligation by implementing restrictions on imports of recyclable materials into China while simultaneously not imposing the same restrictions on local recyclable streams.[14] But even if a WTO suit could possibly be won by the US[15], there are a number of potential ramifications to such a suit: it is costly, does not guarantee that China will comply with a decision, and there are serious diplomatic and moral issues that may arise.[16]

The US must determine another way to deal with its growing amount of recyclable materials – individual waste processing companies have the ability to begin building a domestic infrastructure, and every individual consumer can contribute to the solution by reducing the amount of plastic waste they create.

  1. Christopher Joyce, Where Will Your Plastic Trash Go Now That China Doesn’t Want It?, National Public Radio (Mar. 13, 2019),
  2. See From Green Fence to Red Alert: A China Timeline, Resource Recycling (Feb. 13, 2018),
  3. World Trade Organization, WTO Doc. G/TBT/N/CHN/1211 (July 20, 2017),
  4. Costas Velis, Global Recycling Markets – Plastic Waste: A Story For One Player – China, International Solid Waste Association 4 (Sep. 2014),
  5. Micaela Marini Higgs, America’s New Recycling Crisis, Explained by an Expert, Vox Media (Apr. 2, 2019),
  6. Joyce, supra note 1.
  7. Colin Parts, Waste Not Want Not: Chinese Recyclable Waste Restrictions, Their Global Impact, and Potential U.S Responses, 20 Chi. J. Int’l L. 291, 293-94 (2019).
  8. Alana Semuels, Is This the End of Recycling?, The Atlantic (Mar. 5, 2019),
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Center for International Environmental Law, Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet (2019) (pointing out that while landfilling emits the least greenhouse gases on an absolute level, it presents significant other risks; stating further that recycling has a moderate emissions profile but displaces new virgin plastic on the market, making it advantageous from an emissions perspective; and lastly explaining that incineration leads to extremely high emissions and is the primary driver of emissions from plastic waste management).
  12. Semuels, supra note 8.
  13. Parts, supra note 7, at 295.
  14. Id.
  15. Id. at 310-11 (arguing that even if China would raise an environmental exception based on GATT art. XX(b), it seems unlikely under current WTO case law that China would be able to meet the requirements for such an environmental exception).
  16. Id. at 322-328.