The Impact of Garbage From Abroad

China started banning the import of 24 types of solid waste in January 2018, causing some of the garbage to be diverted to Taiwan. It has had a substantial impact on the local recycling industry.

If you strike up a conversation with owners of Taiwanese recycling businesses, big and small, about how the recycling industry on the island has been doing lately, you’ll probably hear, “The prices have been really bad lately, especially for paper.”

The nosedive in prices started in early 2018, but they’re not the only thing impacting the recycling industry—stricter scrutiny is also being applied to the recyclables that individual scavengers are bringing to recycling businesses for sale. In the past, cardboard, scrap paper, and paper drink containers could be lumped together for sale, but now only properly sorted paper products stand a chance of being accepted and purchased.

These changes have occurred as a result of China imposing stricter restrictions on imported waste. Once the world’s largest importer of foreign waste, China banned 24 kinds of scraps in January 2018, including unsorted paper and polyethylene terephthalate (commonly abbreviated as “PET”) used in plastic bottles. The bans sent waste exporters such as Japan, the United States, and Europe scrambling for a substitute for China. As a result, some of the trash was diverted to other Southeast Asian regions in the proximity of China, including Taiwan.

Paper and plastics made up the majority of the garbage that was diverted to Taiwan. According to customs statistics, the amount of waste plastics imported during the first half of 2018 came to about 240,000 tons, 2.6 times higher than the amount imported in the same period in 2017. Imported scrap paper totaled 770,000 tons, 1.3 times higher than before.

The recycling from abroad impacted the local recycling industry, causing prices for various recyclable materials to plummet. Waste paper was the most badly affected; the price dropped from five Taiwanese dollars (US$0.17) per kilogram in 2017 to one or two Taiwanese dollars in 2018. There has been an environmental impact as well: Mixed in with the imported recycling was a lot of nonrecyclable waste, which unavoidably added to environmental pollution in Taiwan.

A worker operates a forklift at a paper recycling facility.

A big headache

A great variety of recyclables could be seen piled high on the empty lots at a recycling business in Xinzhuang, New Taipei City. There was a separate pile for each type of recyclable, including separate piles for metals, plastics, PET bottles, paper, and electronic appliances. Paper, which made up the bulk of the reclaimable refuse, had been sorted into several categories.

Qiu, the owner of the recycling facility, had been in the trade for over a decade. He said that he mostly dealt in waste paper and that “the garbage from abroad” had made quite an impact on him. He was suffering from financial losses as a result of reduced prices, but the stockpiles of the goods he hadn’t been able to sell was giving him an even bigger headache. “I used to be able to sell 500 tons to paper mills, but that has come down to 300 tons,” he lamented. “I’ve had no choice but to stockpile the remaining 200 tons.”

Since the price for waste paper from abroad had dropped drastically, local paper mills had turned to that source for their purchases. Waste paper produced locally had nowhere to go as a result, leading to the surplus.

Zhang was another recycling merchant facing the same dilemma as Qiu. Unlike Qiu, Zhang dealt in plastics. His recycling facility, located in Banqiao, New Taipei City, was big and set up with sorting lines. A group of female workers stood in line beside conveyor belts, sorting plastics. Besides PET bottles and other plastic containers and packaging, there were items that shouldn’t have appeared on the conveyor belts, such as waste paper, metal cans, and paper containers.

“Most of the recyclables that end up in my place are mixed with other impurities,” Zhang declared. “A bag can contain many types of waste.” He explained that the sources of his recyclables were not individual scavengers, but small-scale recycling dealerships and charity groups. Except for recyclables from Tzu Chi, those from other sources were often not properly sorted. That’s why he had to hire so many employees to work the sorting lines.

On an empty lot in his facility stood a row of “plastic walls” made of compressed plastics. Zhang said the impact from imported waste was smaller on plastic containers such as PET bottles or milk jugs because the Taiwanese government subsidized the businesses that recycled these kinds of garbage. Other sorts of plastic waste were another story. There used to be facilities that took those other kinds of garbage, but due to the impact of waste from abroad, very few recycling processing facilities now took them.

Some of the unwanted plastic waste was made of mixed materials. For example, though the main material used to make the disposable containers that are often used to package tomatoes is PET, other materials are mixed in as well. With cheaper sources from abroad now available, processing businesses naturally don’t want to spend extra money to sort and process this kind of plastic.

“Even if you gave them the plastics for free, they wouldn’t take it,” Zhang said. He added that if the situation did not improve, he would have to send the plastics currently stockpiled at his place away to be buried or incinerated. He’s simply running out of space.

Government sanitation workers collect garbage from households. Not all recyclable garbage picked up by a recycling truck is guaranteed to be recycled. A lot of challenges have to be overcome before a piece of recyclable waste can gain a new lease on life.

Hard-working volunteers

Some people in Taiwan give their recyclables to individual scavengers, smaller recycling dealerships, or Tzu Chi recycling stations, but most let government sanitation workers take care of their household garbage, both recyclable and nonrecyclable. City or county governments then call for bids from recycling businesses interested in buying the collected recyclables. Bid winners sort their purchased recyclables more thoroughly and then turn around and sell them to paper, plastics, or metal processing factories.

Due to the steep fluctuations in recycling prices in recent years and the rise of labor costs, some recycling businesses have chosen to stockpile their goods and wait for the prices to rise again. Others take a different course. Last year, for example, when the price for paper hit rock bottom, some waste paper dealers opted out of the bidding process held by the New Taipei City government. Not participating at all was their way to cut down on possible losses.

Another consequence of the decrease in recycling prices is the stricter demands recycling businesses now place on the quality of the reclaimable garbage brought to them. Take paper for example. Paper containers used to be lumped together with scrap paper for sale, but now that paper mills are demanding that they be separated, recycling businesses have no choice but to do so. Scrap paper goes to paper mills and paper containers to recycling facilities. The recycling facilities can then separate the plastic lining from paper containers so that the items can be reused.

These stricter demands from recycling businesses have not had much of an impact on Tzu Chi recycling stations. That’s because volunteers have always been thorough in sorting the recyclables that end up at the stations.

Individual scavengers deliver their recyclables to recycling dealerships and have the garbage weighed there.

The Tzu Chi Sanchong Recycling Station, in New Taipei City, is located right next to the Tzu Chi Sanchong Jing Si Hall (a Tzu Chi activity center). On this day, volunteer Wu Lian-zhen (吳連溱) was sorting plastics other than plastic bags and PET bottles. She dexterously separated the plastic items that went through her hands into three categories. Practice makes perfect, and she could usually separate the plastics into their respective categories by mere touch.

Many Tzu Chi recycling stations in the greater Taipei area deliver their PET and glass bottles to the Sanchong station for further disposal. Glass bottles sorted by color—clear, amber, and green—could be seen piled on an empty lot at the station. Off to the side were PET bottles, milk jugs, and rigid plastics. Each area was chock-full of recyclables.

Ye Ming-zhu (葉明珠), a senior recycling volunteer, said that last year recycling dealers began implementing more rigorous standards for the recyclables delivered to them. Take glass bottles for example. Dealers used to take them mixed by color, but now they have to be sorted into three colors. PET bottles and milk jugs have to be separated by color too.

Volunteers don’t fear the hard work required to separate the items. What they fear instead is that their recyclables are rejected by dealers and end up being burned or landfilled, damaging Taiwan’s environment as a result.

Saving reusable resources

Jiang Mei-xiu (江美秀), a volunteer at the Zhonggang Recycling Station in New Taipei City, held a chart in her hand. The chart listed in detail the categories of recyclables the station handles, the prices for them, and the dealers the recyclables are sent to. A wide variety of recyclables were included: paper, metals, plastics, light bulbs, batteries, etc.—over 140 items in total.

It is a fact known in the recycling industry that the more thoroughly and finely sorted your recyclables are, the easier you can weather changes in the market. Despite that, Jiang mentioned that very few dealers now take plastic sheets made of PP (polypropylene) and PS (polystyrene). This is due to the large imports of garbage in 2018.

PP and PS plastic sheets are omnipresent in daily life. Take the clear containers often used to package fruit, cake, or other kinds of food. They are all but regarded as garbage in the recycling market. Because they are small and light, a large amount has to be accumulated before it can be delivered to be processed. Accumulating such large amounts also means it is easy for different materials to be mixed in it. What’s more, because they are often used to contain food and beverages, they are often sticky and dirty after use. They need to be cleaned before they can be recycled. Because the process of reclaiming them is so troublesome and the resulting profits so low, it is small wonder that few recycling businesses are willing to take them.

It is difficult to recycle plastic containers like the ones photographed here. Many become garbage after being used only once.

Plastic bags face the same situation. They are, like the plastic containers mentioned above, “personae non gratae” in the recycling market. Despite that, some Tzu Chi recycling stations still take them.

If you visit the Zhonggang Recycling Station, you will most likely see a lot of plastic bags being air-dried on the third floor. Jiang said that all of those bags have been collected from fruit and vegetable markets and have been used to package guavas. They have to be sorted, cleaned, and air-dried before they can be delivered to dealers. Reclaimed plastic bags have to be heated and melted before they can be made into new products. If recycled bags contain any moisture when they are heated, explosions are likely to happen. To avoid this danger, recycling businesses request that recycled materials be cleaned and air-dried before they are processed. Only with that extra work is it possible for bags to be recycled instead of ending up in an incinerator or a landfill.

Making the life of things last as long as possible

Du Xu Jin-zhu (杜許錦珠) sat in a corner at the Zhonggang station, scraping sticky paper tags with a knife from some clear plastic casing and then putting the items into a large bag in front of her. She was so fast it looked like she had been at this for years. “All foreign objects must be removed from the recyclables so that it will be easier for the dealers to process them later,” she commented.

Then she threw what she was handling on the floor. She smiled and said that the noise it made hitting the floor told her the piece of casing was made of #5 rigid plastic.

There are many older volunteers like Du at Tzu Chi recycling stations who, thanks to their years of experience in recycling, can tell by touch or sound into which category to sort a piece of plastic—PS, PC (polycarbonate), etc.

Jiang Mei-xiu pointed out that sorting recyclables isn’t as easy as it looks. Owing to the wide range of materials involved, sorting can become quite complicated. “When we first started, we even asked recycling dealers to give us lessons on how to sort,” she said.

A volunteer removes the ring from the neck of a PET bottle. The ring and cap of a PET bottle are made of a different material from the bottle itself. They need to be removed and recycled separately.

Picking up a broken remote control, Jiang illustrated the benefits of meticulous sorting: “This is a discarded remote control. No one wants it. But if you take it apart and divide its components into different categories, they will be of use again.”

The remote control consisted of parts like the plastic casing, computer chips, and copper wiring, with the last item being the most valuable. If not taken apart, the remote was just a piece of garbage, but if dismantled, its various components could become reusable resources again. It served as an excellent example of this maxim: “There is no real garbage—only misplaced resources.”

Dissembling items like the remote control is among the work that volunteers at Tzu Chi recycling stations do. Their patience is necessary to transform useless objects into reusable resources. But not all recyclable items have to be meticulously taken apart and sorted. Take PET bottles. Though their caps, main bodies, and labels are made of different materials, all you need to do is to detach the caps from the bottles—the labels should be left on.

“The recycling of PET bottles is subsidized by the government recycling fund,” Jiang said, “and people need the labels to confirm that.” She further explained that the manufacturers that make this kind of bottle have to pay the government a recycling fee to be put toward the recycling fund, and the labels on the bottles contain that information.

However, some recyclables, no matter how carefully sorted, are rejected by recycling businesses. Second-hand clothing is an example. Jiang said that people these days change their wardrobes so fast a large quantity of used clothes are turned out. Donating them to charity groups isn’t the solution because the amount needed by charity groups is limited. Supply has exceeded demand in other countries too, so sending the clothing abroad isn’t an option either. Recycling of second-hand clothes is an issue that people in Taiwan are having to face.

Many recyclables haven’t been properly sorted before they are delivered to Tzu Chi recycling stations. Volunteers first roughly divide them into bottles and cans, paper and plastics before sorting them more thoroughly.
A volunteer takes cassette tapes apart to reclaim reusable components. With cassette tapes going the way of the dinosaurs, many have ended up being thrown away.


A Note on Garbage From Abroad

          China used to process at least half of the world’s exports of waste paper, metals, and plastics, but in 2018, the nation started implementing a ban on the import of 24 kinds of solid waste in the name of protecting the environment and improving public health. Beijing declared that large amounts of dirty or even hazardous wastes had been mixed in the solid waste that entered China, seriously polluting the country’s environment.

          After the ban went into effect, trash was diverted to Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. As a countermeasure to the flooding of refuse into their countries, these nations began putting restrictions on the import of garbage too. In October 2018, Taiwan reduced the import of certain types of waste paper and plastics to under 0.5 percent.

A volunteer at a Tzu Chi recycling station in Banqiao, New Taipei City, cleans plastic bags with recycled water before recycling them. Taiwan uses over ten billion plastic bags every year, and many are carelessly discarded or sent to incinerators. Volunteers patiently salvage them to lessen their impact on the environment.


September 2019