NLC REPORT: Rethinking Recycling: How Cities Can Adapt to Evolving Markets

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.


In 2015, Americans generated more than 262 million tons of waste, or nearly 4.5 pounds per person, per day. To handle this load, nearly every U.S. city has developed a solid waste management program that includes recycling. These initiatives have overall proved successful. The recycling rate has tripled in the last 30 years to approximately 25.8 percent in 2015, or nearly 68 million tons. The industry is both environmentally beneficial and economically significant. In 2007, the U.S. recycling and reuse industry accounted for 757,000 stable jobs, $36.6 billion in wages, and $6.7 billion in state, local and federal tax revenues. 

But today, the recycling industry is in the midst of a global crisis precipitated by China’s latest waste import policy, National Sword. In January 2018, China implemented an import ban on certain commodity mixes, and in March the country began enforcing stricter limits on how much contamination can be present in recyclable materials. The ban specifically targets mixed paper and mixed plastics, the two most common types of materials processed by municipal recycling systems. Since China previously received more than half the world’s recyclable commodity exports, the move has unsettled global recycling.

While China’s new policy is not an outright ban on all recycling imports, the contamination limits of 0.5 percent are so low that no American processor can realistically meet them.  Officially, the Chinese contamination rates have varied between 1.5-10 percent over the last several years. 

Now though, China is making a serious effort to tackle its own environmental issues.  Additional restrictions are scheduled to take effect later in 2019, and China aims to halt all solid waste imports by 2020.  As a result, prices have plummeted for many types of recyclable commodities and revenues are dropping for cities, haulers and processors who rely on these sales.

Cities throughout the U.S., as well as private haulers and operators of materials recovery facilities (MRFs), must reevaluate their operations and policies in order to adapt and maintain viable municipal materials management systems.

The National League of Cities has developed a Municipal Action Guide for municipal officials titled Rethinking Recycling:  How Can Cities Adapt to Evolving Markets.  This Guide is available for download at