The Kings of Recycling Are Fighting Over Scraps

China’s decision to stop recycling America’s waste has cratered the market, leaving plastic and other trash to pile up

Adam Popescu
Published in
11 min readSep 17, 2019


Credit: Sergei Savostyanov/Getty Images

WWhere does it all go? The plastic bag for your supermarket run, the banh mi sandwich wrapper you strip away for lunch, the endless packaging shipped via every Amazon order, the water bottle you crush post-workout — what happens when you throw it away? And if you haul it out to your green recycling bin, does it even get recycled?

Common sense screams yes, but in the wake of changing laws and shifting global markets, the reality is far dirtier.

At a time when we’re able to irrigate deserts, create man-made glaciers, communicate constantly across time zones and borders — even if it destroys our mood and memory — one of the biggest problems we face starts at home. And no, it’s not politics or climate, but in many ways it’s just as important.

We Americans create about seven pounds of trash per person a day. As a nation, that’s more than 262 million tons of waste a year, according to the EPA. Despite our best efforts, more than half of that waste is sent to landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plastic that ruled our lives was a commodity yielding huge returns when it came to recycling. The market shift began tilting once China decided to stop taking our junk.

In 1960, the United States recycled 5.6 million tons of trash — a number that grew to nearly 70 million tons by 2015. While numbers have trended upward for decades, even taking into account growth in overall trash production and population, there’s been a staggering 184% increase in the amount of trash produced today versus 1960. No matter how much you fill your recycle bin, the system is crashing. The “why” is the dark corollary to globalism. Cheap products beget cheap products beget more and more packaging.

For years, the plastic that ruled our lives was a commodity yielding huge returns when it came to recycling. That profitability is based on global demand, and even before the trade war began, the market…