Why China Doesn’t Want Your Trash Anymore

This video is sponsored by Audible! Listen to a free audiobook with the link in
the description. Every year, about 60 million people visit
mainland China from around the world. Mostly, to Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and
Shenzhen. These, not coincidentally, are unofficially
known as Tier One cities – they have large urban populations, fast-growing economies,
and enough Starbucks to make you feel right at home. But this is only one of several, very different
Chinas. A trip to a Tier 3 or 4 city, or, especially,
a village in the country, paints a whole different picture. For example, just 15 miles outside Beijing
and its 9th-tallest building in the world, lies a very different kind of skyscraper:
piles and piles of trash. Some, eight or more stories tall. Here, something like 160,000 locals collect,
sort, and resell the city’s twenty-five thousand tonnes of trash a day. Entire communities revolve around and survive
on these landfills. But, look closely, and you might notice something
strange… Between the Chinese water bottles, tires and
so on, are, say, German newspapers, British grocery bags, and American milk jugs. That’s because, for decades, China has been
buying the world’s trash. Since 1988, it’s imported almost half of
all plastic waste. The U.S. alone has sent thousands of containers
full of plastic every day. Then, in 2017, China announced it didn’t
want any more. Its standards became so strict that many countries
suddenly had no place to put their garbage. It all started piling up, and fast. In Western states like Washington, Oregon,
and California, recycling had to be sent to the dump. Ireland, which had been sending 95% of its
plastic waste there, experienced a near-crisis. So, why did China want your trash in the first
place? And why is it stopping now? It’s hard to overstate how much the economies
of China and the United States are connected. Unsurprisingly, China is the number one source
of imports to the U.S., and it, China’s biggest customer. Every week, hundreds of container ships make
their way from Shanghai or Hong Kong, across the Pacific, towards the American West Coast. They deliver your car, your sofa, your dinner. But, as you also may know, the U.S. doesn’t
have as much to send back. Which, means, big, scary, negative numbers,
and a lot of talk about soybeans. This would be a major problem – ships would
have to make the two-week return trip empty, and thus, double their one-way prices, making
everything more expensive. Imagine how inefficient it would be if every
airplane or car had to return from its trip without passengers. Oh wait, that’s just called Uber. The U.S. needs something to ship back to Asia. Luckily, there is something we’re really
good at producing a lot of: trash! Americans make up only 4% of the world’s
population, but we generate 25% of the world’s garbage and dominate 90% of your headlines. You’re welcome. On average, each of us contributes 4.4 pounds
of waste a day, for a total of 16 billion diapers, 2 billion razor blades, and 220 million
tires a year. It also doesn’t help that we order everything
on Amazon. And that tiny pack of gum arrives in a 4-foot
box… inside another giant box, of course. In fact, packaging takes up a third of the
space of the average landfill. Which, is cool and all when it magically disappears
from your curb, but not so much when the city wants to build the dump in your backyard. Anywhere but there. We Americans are great at buying stuff and
turning it into trash but not as good at doing something with it afterward. High labor and transportation costs make it
quite expensive to drive around the country to sort, clean, and re-process. Meanwhile, China has plenty of cheap labor
and lots of demand for raw materials they can manufacture new stuff with. Plus, we’ve already got a bunch of humungous
boats making the journey at low capacity. As the saying goes: one man’s trash is another
country’s cheap source of recyclable materials, which may or may not be environmentally sustainable,
but we’ll get to that in a minute. Thanks to good old supply and demand, shipping
a 20-foot container from Shanghai to Los Angeles might cost a thousand dollars. The other way, four, five hundred. Here the trade deficit works in our favor. The U.S. gets rid of its garbage, and China
gets cheap materials. To see how it works, let’s look at San Fransisco. Waste is split into three separate bins. Compost, like vegetables, grass, and napkins,
accounts for about 9% of all municipal waste. It’s checked for contaminants, mixed, and
sent 60 miles North to Vacaville, California, where it’s sold to farms and wineries as
high-nutrient soil. That’s ideal. But about half of all waste, is sent to the
dump. It gets picked up, sometimes moved to a temporary
transfer station, and then hauled to a landfill, where the plastic bag you used for a few seconds
between the store and your car sits for 1,000 years. Not that you should feel… bad or anything. The rest is mostly recycling. Now, sorting it can get pretty expensive. Buuuttt, it’s hard enough to get people
to recycle anything, much less when you make them separate it. So, San Fransisco, like many cities, uses
single-stream recycling – everything from paper, to plastic, metal, and glass, goes
in a single bin, and then gets sorted at a MRF, a Materials Recovery Facility. Over 40 tons of waste is processed every hour
at the 200,000 square foot Pier 96. Tractors scoop piles of recycling onto conveyor
belts, where it gets sorted by humans, mechanical dividers, and optical scanners. Apparently it’s not uncommon for people
to recycle a bowling ball. Finally, the separated materials are sold
and shipped around the world. Sometimes, they move through several countries,
making it hard to track exactly where it all ends up. For example, Mexico sends much of its plastic
to the U.S., and the U.S. exports mainly to China, often through Hong Kong. So it’s likely that even more of our trash
than we think eventually ends up in China. After being shipped thousands of miles across
the Pacific, eaten or used, thrown away, collected, and then making the whole journey back, much
of this trash will end up just a few miles away from where it was first manufactured
in Southern China. And then, it’ll be recycled and go through
it all again. This is an extremely profitable business,
It’s even how Zhang Yin, nicknamed the Queen of Trash, became one of China’s richest
women. It worked so well, in fact, that nobody was
prepared for a world any different. But that started to change in 2013 with Operation
Green Fence, in which China announced it would start enforcing quality standards for imported
trash. Then, in 2017, the more aggressive sounding,
National Sword – a crackdown on illegal smuggling. Finally, the Blue Sky policy in 2018 added
even tougher restrictions and a plan to ban all recyclable imports by 2020. For months, companies like Rogue Disposal
and Recycling, in Medford, Oregon, had no choice but to dump recycling in landfills. Which, surprise, is not a great way to encourage
more recycling. Since then, U.S. exports to Thailand have
increased by nearly 7,000%, along with Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan. But, soon, they too started closing their
doors – no one can or wants to replace China. And that isn’t such a bad thing. It may actually be really good. Until now, rich countries have had no incentive
not to generate insane amounts of waste. Actually, it’s been quite profitable! This could be a very good long-term wake-up
call. Despite complaints from the U.S. government,
China has no obligation to import anyone’s garbage. Like any export, trash is a product. If demand changes, so must supply. This is yet another sign of China’s Great
Economic Transition. Trash is a remarkably good indicator of economic
health. Here’s the amount of trash generated by
each country, and here’s their GDP. One of the reasons China no longer wants your
trash is that now has plenty of its own. It’s also part of Beijing’s push to lower
its pollution and clear its skies. This year, China is expected to pass the U.S.
and become the largest consumer market. By 2030, it’s expected to generate three
times as much waste as the U.S. And as China becomes more and more important
on the world stage, all of us will fall into two categories: those who understand it, for
whom this is a great opportunity, and those who are left behind. My favorite book for getting a feel for what
the country is really like and where it may go in the future is “China in the 21st Century”
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom. I read it while researching this video, and
I recommend it – it’s only 5 hours long and you can listen to it on Audible! Let’s be real, we all have busy lives and
it’s kinda hard to find an hour or two during the day where you can sit down and read. But it’s easy to put on an audiobook on
the way to work or school, or while doing chores, or writing long rambling YouTube comments. Not that you guys would do that… What I like about this book, in particular,
is that it’s a nice, general overview of China, It doesn’t pretend to know the future,
and it doesn’t have any kind of agenda, it’s a straightforward, objective explanation. Go to Audible.com/Polymatter or text polymatter
to 500500 to start listening to this book or whatever you’re into for free! Again, that’s Audible.com/p-o-l-y-m-a-t-t-e-r
or text p-o-l-y-m-a-t-t-e-r to 5-0-0-5-0-0.

About the author


  1. If Trump finds out about the need to fill shipping containers he will start loading all of the illegal fake immigrants off to China for cash to pay for the INS & ICE budgets. Wow !!!

  2. Thank you china for cleaning up all our countries trash for so long i'm glad you've taken your country back. The trash has to be fully recycled locally only then will countries see what we are producing and what a headache it is and come up with solutions to fix it. Pushing it onto others doorsteps is not the answer. Stop just blaming USA for all of it no one is advert to creating tons of trash fixing the problem starts at home in your home

  3. I keep saying this, reduce population, reduce population, reduce population, reduce population, reduce population. Use birth control, use anal sex, anything just reduce world population and a major part, over 50%, will be greatly reduced.

  4. But China produces most of these plastic things that becomes trash in the first place. I think every country should take back all plastic (and other hard to recycle) products that they produce.

  5. All the western countries have empty lands, why don't they use for their shits,
    Good for countries who stand up to the west governments who are sucking out all resources of the earth and want their trash to be other countries problem, ha ha ha ha

  6. …china buys our trash…their policy not ours…false arguments…trash talk…by usa commentators…well, small cell brains everywhere…

  7. Good old USA..do what I say, not what I do. We better look into the volcano option. Or put our trash and shoot it into the sun/space. Walle anyone?

  8. Why would a overpopulated country like China want other country's trash when they can not deal with their own?
    The US is the size of China but with 325 million people not a insane 1.4 billion people.

  9. About Amazon.
    How is cardboard pollution? It is made from softwood pulp and completely dissolves like fallen leaves from a tree.
    It nothing like petroleum plastic.

  10. The world never use plastic bags and bottles until the mid 1970s how did the world survive up to then?

    Let's go back to that system.

    Good luck finding a plastic bag or bottle in the ditch or water in 1970 because we just did not use them.

  11. Many times when I buy something fairly large made in China, I get stuck with many cubic feet of foamed plastic packaging, clogging our landfills. This foam packaging is very low density, likely polystyrene which is foamed with a gas. Since it is so low in density, it is very expensive to recycle. Someone should do a study on how much packaging material is coming from China to the US landfills.

  12. garbage is a problem for every country. Of course usa , australia sells there garbage to china, any economist would agree its best for both countries, china can reuse and repackage it all and make money for it, australia has near 0% manafacturing, it was good for both countries. The best thing to come out of this by china not taking it is it will force government to push for less wastefull packaging. There is no way local government in USA, Australia is going to let there cities look like Manilla, a polluted dumb, they will be forced to keep it clean, its western culture, China probably did a good thing by doing this right now, the timing was good. I know Sydney and Melbourne dont have enough infastructure to handle the processing , now they will be forced to upgrade

  13. just burn the trash, my friend lives in the country and burns all he can to keep warm, once he needed to get rid of a matress so he cut it up and burnt it- propper ! another friend had to get rid of his old sofa so he borrowed the firms van put the sofa and his wife in the back ,drove out into the country and had his wife push the sofa out the back of the van ! glad i wasnt on my bike that day !

  14. It is not hard to find people willing to lecture/preach at us. You sound like one of those "do as I say not as I do" stuffed shirts. Your shallow thinking is for sheeple not independent thinkers.

  15. In Singapore they incinerate their trash, the heat is used to drive turbines to generate electricity. Emissions are virtually zero. Any such energy plants in USA?

  16. Then send Timmy Cook back………But take the chip out of his head first and chuck the gallon of LSD he keeps under his desk (or mail it to son of EL (Elon Musk)

  17. In Devon UK where I live you have to wash, sort and recycle. Recycling collected every week. Landfill every three weeks and you only get one bin to fill. Genius. It has forced people to recycle who would not have bothered otherwise.

  18. Hold on a second! You say America doesn’t have many things to send back to China despite the hundreds of ships from China monthly. We have plenty but due to China’s currency manipulation we are not competitive. Furthermore, Chinese nationalism poo-poo’s most American goods except those that are high profile, named brands. Just so they can appear to be rich.

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  20. Why doesn't the US have all its trailer trash people do the trash recycling in a trailer. Jobs for Trump's trailer trash army of supporters.

  21. Why don't everybody get rid of the bottles for the bottled water and everybody just drinks water out of the faucet but it's gonna have to be cleaned up so it's fresh like spring water

  22. Well the bottom line is they're going to have to release technology that cleans up the stuff the oceans the landfills are they the air the water they're going to have to release the technology because they damn well have it

  23. If plastic is such a problem why are governments not banning it? Oh yeah cuz money is worth more than a future for earth

  24. China is a trash dump though. And Chinese people are communist garbage. So why is it bad to send trash to China ? The USA and other countries send China exactly what Chinese people are. Trash.

  25. I have a solution (for the plastic all other recyclable are screwed) you manufacture a ton of airtight metal spheres/cubes/cylinders fill them with plastic vacuum seal the plastic filled spheres then heat them causing pyrolysis which will produce new smaller polymers like short-chain hydrocarbons which can be used a carbon-neutral fuel in internal combustion engines or be used to reform long hydrocarbons (i.e plastic). This could also be slightly modified to accommodate cellulose/lignin so fibrous plant waste/paper could be recycled into something other than more paper.

  26. USA: China take my trash
    China: No
    USA: Thailand
    Papua New Guinea

  27. What we need are some smart scientists who can figure out that if you heat that plastic trash it will convert back to crude oil.

  28. yes the civilized USA America refused to spent money to recycle plastic waste. cheaper to send (sell) USD 40 (before USD 300) per ton of plastic waste to dumb country like China Vietnam and Indonesia. watch video PLASTIC CHINA. thanks a lot mr president donald trump our country Indonesia now number #1 imported 700.000 tons plastic waste from USA.

  29. The prime minister has vowed to do more to tackle plastic waste in the world’s oceans, saying the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres will be banned (in 2099?).

    Scott Morrison said only about 12% of materials are properly recycled in Australia and he wanted that to change. With state and territory leaders, he has laid out a plan for environment ministers to improve the recycling system.

    Last year it cost Australia $2.8bn to export nearly 4.5m tonnes of waste , with most going to Vietnam, Indonesia and China.


  30. thank you australian for send indonesia your toxic hazardous material waste. send more pls.

  31. The Ocean doesn't want Chinas pollutants either, and none of us want them fishing our stocks dry. We don't all get what we want do we?

  32. Chinese people sort out these rubbish to make a dollar, then save to a million, then send their kids to American university to "steal their IP". Now kids grown up, work in Huawei. Too bad those grown up kids don't want sort rubbish any more.

  33. China was buying recycle not trash. He US did not recycle. They bundled and sold recycling to China. When China passed a law for low contaminated recycle the us recycle was deemed trash and not recyclable. It was then refused. The us basically buries it’s recycling. People here can still feel good about themselves tossing plastic bottle trash into a blue bin. Then it is in reality landfilled.

  34. The same nonsense is happening all over the world. (same shit here in germany, dumb as dump)
    Only for profit, for convenience and ignorance.
    The children of this world will have to pay a very high price.

  35. China: was to be the world's damping ground for foreign trashes.

    India: Hold my Tea, India still best place for foreign trashes.

  36. Fixing the trash problem will probably cause a depression. World-wide goods will become more expensive so they are recyclable and wages are not going up to accommodate.

  37. actually, china (and indosnesia etc.) just doesnt want the unsorted trash. if only americans could just get their act together and separate their fuckin trash, china would still happily take it. apparently, telling paper from plastic is just too hard for the average american (voter)

  38. Thank you, Asia, for forcing us in the West to get our own act together! Not denying scale and the massive infrastructural problems in Asia, Africa and South America but we ALL need to step up our moral responsibility! Greetings from a Dane tired of collecting "civilized" people's trash here.

  39. What about those intense heat incinerators I've seen in high rise building basements? They burn anything down to nothing. Why don't we use them everywhere?

  40. Not true. San Fran does not recycle.
    They throw needles, poop, trash and
    bottles of pee out the window
    on-top-of the homeless people.

  41. That's good because China just dumps all their trash in the ocean oftentimes anyways. Five Asian countries are responsible for 60% of the world's ocean pollution: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam

  42. Was the much hyped "conversion" of plastics into park benches and construction materials, all a big white lie ?

  43. I represent a company that turns plastic waste into liquid fuel. Anyone reading this with an interest can Google me.


    Thank you…

  44. I represent a company that turns plastic waste into liquid fuel. Anyone reading this with an interest can Google me.


    Thank you…

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