China’s National Sword policy led to 23% more plastic going to landfill in United States

China recycling inspections ports that solid waste
Chinese customs officials inspect waste materials

A study by University of Buffalo researchers has shown that 23.2% more plastic went to landfill in the United States following China’s implementation of its National Sword policy.

In 2013, China introduced the Green Fence programme that led to more inspections of incoming loads of material. But the researchers found that this led to no statistical difference in the amount of plastic sent to landfill.


But from 2016 to 2018 when China introduced tougher rules, including the National Sword inspection programme in 2017, the amount of plastic going to landfill increased by 23.2%. The study controlled for oil prices, producer price index, and amount of plastic scrap exported.

The researchers also found that the cost of operating materials recycling facilities (MRFs) increased as operators needed to sort for better quality. One MRF operator had to slow down its sorting line by 40% to improve the quality of plastic and paper.

University of Buffalo assistant professor in operations management and strategy Aditya Vedantam said: “With waste generation consistently growing, coupled with fewer options to export plastic scrap, the domestic supply of lower value plastic scrap has drastically exceeded existing demand. This has resulted in a decline in prices, which reduced the profitability of recycling and increased the attractiveness of alternate disposal options, such as landfills.

“China’s restrictions have highlighted the need to invest in and improve recycling in the US. Sophisticated machinery and a sufficient supply of materials are available. Still, due to low market prices of plastics — particularly, the mixed Nos. 3-7 plastics — there is little incentive to invest in expanded and improved plastics recycling.

“This work highlights that there is a pressing need for industry organisations and policymakers to encourage demand creation for scrap plastic and improve the quality of recyclables.”

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