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How China’s ban on plastic, paper waste impacts Seattle recycling

Plastic lines the beach in Tauranga, New Zealand in 2011. (AP Photo/New Zealand Herald, Mark Mitchell)

You’ve likely read that China has stopped accepting America’s recycled plastic and paper, and so the question becomes: Is recycling dead?

Not in Seattle.

“Recycling is not dead. It’s well good and alive, but it’s definitely a different day,” outreach planner for Seattle Public Utilities Becca Fong told Seattle’s Morning News. “The material is going to domestic markets; it really depends on the commodity. The two things that were really impacted by China’s ban were mixed paper and mixed plastic.”

Fong says mixed paper is a combination of all forms of paper smashed together, and China used to take all of it. Now to make it a more available commodity, sorting facilities are separating out magazines from office paper and cardboard, resulting in cleaner individual streams. Plastics are being further separated as well.

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According to National Geographic, China previously took in 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste imports, but announced last year it could accept no more due to local environmental concern. The announcement also was a reminder that much of the plastic we put in the bin was actually being sent across the ocean because it was cheaper to do so.

As a result of the China ban, some of the local plastics are being sent to a secondary sorting facility in British Columbia, which will further sort out the piles of plastic and turn it into pellets.

“Then it’s easier to sell that raw material, because those pellets are easier to sell to somebody who’s going to make new plastic pop bottles or various items,” Fong said.

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With the additional sorting of individual plastic and paper, is this new system cost-efficient and environmentally sound?

“Absolutely it is. The thing about plastics is that they’re made from petroleum, so that’s pumped out of the ground, and then it’s transported and brought to manufacturing facilities to make new things,” she said. “When you recycle plastic instead, you shortcut that process, so the petroleum doesn’t have to be pulled from the ground.”

“So even though there is more sorting and there’s more transportation, it is less energy-intensive to use a recycled product.”

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