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What is the National Sword?

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What is the National Sword?

You may have heard the phrases “national sword” or “green sword” in the news lately. It is a policy in China that has banned the importation of certain types of solid waste, as well as set strict contamination limits on recyclable materials.

This means that China will not accept shipments that are mixed with trash, the wrong type of recyclable, or low-quality recyclables like greasy paper goods. The policy was announced in July 2017, and the ban officially began January 1, 2018. In addition to the bans, China is reducing the number of import licenses, meaning that fewer businesses will be able to import waste.

Why does it matter?

China has been the world’s biggest importer of waste for decades. China has imported paper, plastic, and scrap metal from other nations and processed these materials for reuse in the products they produce for export. However, the implementation of the National Sword has reduced the rate at which these materials are imported. This has created significant logjams in the international recycling system, resulting in recycled material piling up at materials recycling facilities (MRFs) or worse, into landfills. This is affecting recycling efforts in the United States and abroad.

After you put something into a recycling bin, it is sent to an MRF. MRFs sort these materials, remove contaminants (like food, non-recyclable plastic, hazardous waste, etc.) that cannot be recycled, and prepare recyclable materials for sale and transport. The materials are then sold to facilities that reduce them to their raw form and turn them into something new (for example, melting plastic bottles down into another type of plastic). Slowing this process significantly threatens jobs in the recycling industry, causes recyclable materials to pile up, and depresses the price for recycled materials due to excess supply.

What can we do about it?

Although you may be unable to change international recycling policy decisions, you can still take steps to help!

  1. Educate yourself. Do you know what objects are and are not recyclable in your area? Contact your local town Department of Public Works or MRF to learn. The Springfield Materials Recovery Facility website lists what can and cannot be recycled, check it out!
  2. Don’t wishcycle. “Wishcycling” or “wishful recycling” refers to a consumer’s tendency to put something in their recycling bins because they believe it should be recycled even if it is not on the list of approved materials for the local MRF. This causes slowdowns at MRFs, exacerbating the problem. If you don’t know if something is recyclable and don’t have the time to check, it’s best to throw it away.
  3. Reduce! Do everything you can to reduce your waste. Think reusable- whether it’s water bottles, forks and knives, food storage containers, towels, etc., do everything you can to avoid using disposable options. When possible, buy in bulk- a single two-liter soda bottle is less wasteful than a 12-pack of smaller bottles.
  4. Keep it clean. Ensure that your recyclables are clean by washing out wasted food and sorting them appropriately. Keeping your recycling clean helps your local MRF by keeping them from slowing down their sorting process to deal with contamination.

Where can I learn more about this topic?

The 2018 Spring WasteWise Forum is a joint program of RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. There event includes a panel discussion and Q&A session with local MRF operators about improving recyclable material quality and reducing contamination. This conversation will be shared via webinar. Register for the webinar here or visit the opens in a new windowRecyclingWorks website for more information on the event.


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