All Politics Is Local

The phrase “all politics is local” is commonly associated with former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, but it has an important corollary: the global is local.  Things that happen far away—decisions made by complete strangers—can have a profound impact on quotidian reality, which is why situational awareness is so important: it pays to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Such is the case with Chinese foreign policy and Long Island’s recycling crisis.

Close-up of two people salvaging items from a trash pile with the Shanghai skyline in the background.

“Informal” recyclers picking through trash for usable components in Shanghai.  At first encouraged by the Chinese authorities, informal recycling is dirty, dangerous work, especially when undertaken without any safety equipment.
Photo Credit:ngader – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

The firms that held recycling contracts here backed out of them when it became clear that they could no longer make a profit re-selling the bundled paper, metal, glass, and plastic.  Recycling Today reported that Green Stream Recycling had to suspend operations because they simply weren’t making enough money.  Long Island’s municipalities have had to scramble to return to more basic recycling efforts, after several years of so-called “single stream” recycling, in which items to be recycled were lumped together at the curb (often resulting in contaminated items that could not be separated or re-sold).  The scramble included having to pay to incinerate or landfill items that were previously sold by the towns, leading to budget gaps.

So how does this connect to Chinese foreign policy?  Well, for many years, China imported much of the world’s recycling in a quest to obtain raw materials.  Acquiring raw materials from the earth is usually capital-intensive, whereas recycling them is labor- and time-intensive.  China had plenty of labor, so it used recycling as a way to kick-start its drive for economic development, beginning in the 1980s.  At its height, the Chinese scrap industry controlled almost half of the total recycling market, importing about 70% of the world’s 500m metric tons of electronic waste and 12m metric tons of plastic waste each year, according to The Guardian.

But becoming the “world’s wastebasket” was uncomfortable.  The largely unregulated industry is a major cause of pollution in China, and led to serious health effects.  Also, China’s economy did so well in the interim that more traditional sources of raw materials were now in reach.  The Chinese government began pulling back on accepting the world’s waste in 2012-13, with Operation Green Fence, announcing that newly rigorous waste quality legislation would be strictly enforced and they would no longer accept poorly sorted or dirty shipments of recyclable waste from foreign exporters.  Within months, hundreds of thousands of metric tons of scrap had been rejected, and hundreds of importer’s licenses had been revoked.

As some noted at the time, Operation Green Fence should have been a wake-up call to the generators of waste—Long Islanders in particular—that their current model of consumption was going to be unsustainable in the very near future.  But area residents and political leaders carried on as before, and failed to create successful domestic recycling treatments, products, and markets. The warning went unheeded until two things happened in 2017: first, Operation “National Sword” cracked down on plastics, and second, China told the World Trade Organization in July 2017 that beginning in 2018, it would no longer accept 24 categories of solid waste.  Accordingly, the ban went into effect January 1, 2018.

Almost immediately, recycling began piling up on Long Island.  Riders of the Long Island Rail Road are familiar with the sight of recycling facilities close to the tracks; these began to burst at the seams with mountains of paper and plastic spilling in all directions.

Overhead shot of overflowing cardboard recycling and a forklift-type machine.
Town of Brookhaven Materials Recycling Facility in Brookhaven on Oct. 29.
Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz for (click image to go to article)

It’s plainly evident that coverage in the mainstream and trade press provided plenty of warning that recycling efforts in the United States would hit a bump.  But there were even earlier warnings, in the scholarly literature. These are the peer-reviewed journal articles containing research based on both primary and secondary sources.  Analyses of Chinese recycling and waste disposal practices, both formal and informal, and of the authorities’ response to them have appeared at least since 1997: see, for example, this article in the Chinese Journal of Environmental Science, or this 2005 article in Environmental Impact Assessment Review.  

And there have been analyses of both the health effects of environmental contamination have been examined since the early part of this century: in 2006 there’s a paper on e-waste contamination at a particular site in Guiyu, southeast China in the Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management, which was followed by a study documenting the elevated blood lead levels in children there in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2007.  In 2011, a study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found that uncontrolled recycling activities led to contaminated soil and vegetables that were grown in that soil.  Analyses of environmental policymaking revealed the deleterious environmental impact on China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2006, the government’s attempt to “jump start” a semi-autonomous civil society with the creation of non-governmental environmental organizations (which could coincidentally provide a relatively safe-for-the-Communist-Party outlet for citizen activism) from 2003 and 2007, and of the inefficiency of Chinese environmental regulations in 2010.

This research was done by both Chinese and international scientists, and clearly the Chinese government had been paying attention.  Being the processor for the world’s trash was totally at odds with China’s self-image, and contrary to the view it wanted to project abroad.  After all, how does it look when the host of spectacular 2008 Olympic Games is also known as the world’s wastebasket? Within a few years, China would be making its intention to cut back known within the industry.

The point here is not about recycling; as much as recycling is a good thing that we should all do more of.  The point is that we could and should have seen China’s policy decisions coming. There was ample warning that both their need and their desire for raw materials obtained from scrap was waning years ago—in fact, at the same time that many municipalities on Long Island switched to the less-preferred “single-stream” model.  The island’s policymakers need to keep an eye on what happens elsewhere in order to be prepared for what will happen here.

(Originally published January 25, 2019)