Recycling Sea Change: Why China's 'National Sword' Affects Kane County, USA

Recycling Sea Change: Why China’s ‘National Sword’ Affects Kane County, USA

  • Editor’s Note: This article, written by Kane County Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Jarland, is the first of a three-part series on China’s National Sword legislation and its effects on recycling programs in Kane County. Got questions or concerns? Contact Jarland at at 630-208-3841 or

You may have heard that China and other Southeast Asian countries are placing legislative restrictions on imports of American recycled materials. Why is this significant?

Because it directly affects what you can and can’t recycle here in Kane County, IL.

Taking a hard stance on recyclable imports is not a new position for Chinese officials, who started to inspect loads of scrap material coming into the country back in 2013.

Restrictions were put in place because such a high percentage of non-recyclable material was in the loads. Chinese officials did not want to receive America’s garbage along with our valuable recyclable commodities. Fair enough.

But since 2013, China has tightened regulations to the extreme.

In 2017, the National Sword legislation was introduced, calling for bans to some materials and hard-line quality enforcement on imports of post-consumer plastics, unsorted mixed paper, textiles and more. The allowable limit of contamination (non-recyclable material) in recyclables was set at .5 percent, a nearly unattainable number.

A policy document issued by the government also outlined a plan to stop importing material that could be recovered domestically.

Impact on American Recycling Programs

Material Recovery Facility operators are pushing for quality improvements by hiring more workers for the manual sort lines, installing new equipment or slowing the sort lines, and yet the volume of trash in the mix is overwhelming, and they struggle to keep up.

Mountains of material are piling up at the MRFs faster than they can process, bale and ship out.

Many cities have been forced to landfill some recyclable materials or make drastic changes to the materials that they accept in the recycling bins. Some have returned to a duel stream program that requires residents to separate paper and containers.

In addition, there have been serious financial implications. Revenues for commodity materials are in a slide, causing a loss for the nation’s largest publicly traded hauling and processing companies. This deficit is then corrected through higher fees to the recyclers, through municipal contracts.

Ultimately it will be the residents that will have to pay for the increased costs that result from contamination in the bins.

But don’t lose hope! We can clean up our act, and recycle right.

I am working with a statewide group to plan a massive outreach campaign on the dos and don’ts of recycling. You can help us make a big difference in how things turn out for recycling in Illinois.

  • Coming Next Week: In Part 2 of the Recycling Sea Change series, Jarland shares some of the findings of the Illinois Recycling Contamination Task Force and a new consensus concerning which items should be “accepted” or “not accepted” for recycling statewide.