Manufacturing & Recycling Opportunities Created By China’s National Sword Policy


Manufacturing Day 2017 and The National Sword

Today is Manufacturing Day ( an annual event celebrated the first Friday of October to raise public awareness the importance of manufacturing in the Twenty-First Century.  Foreign competition is no longer the most pressing challenge, though it remains an issue.  The shortage of skilled workers plagues today’s manufacturers as many jobs are now technologically advanced and becoming more so.  Yet, there are still entry level positions for unskilled workers which offer opportunity for growth and advancement in some segments, one of which is the recycling industry.

Recycling is Manufacturing

While most people probably don’t think of “recycling” as manufacturing, it is in fact, a first link in the manufacturing supply chain. If you do stop to think about it, you realize that something must be done with all that stuff mixed up in your curbside bin.  You realize that no one could make a product that you would want to buy from that jumble. At the curb, you’ve only collected potentially recyclable materials and diverted them from the trash stream.  The real recycling happens when products are made from what you’ve collected and are then purchased.

That’s where “recyclers” come in. We take those mixed up materials and prepare them to meet the specifications of the end-user so that they can be substitutes for virgin raw materials.  Those are two of the reasons for recycling – reduce our dependence on waste disposal facilities and on virgin raw materials, both of which are limited resources.  As an industry,

  • Recycling generates nearly $16.5 billion in export sales to 155 countries, the largest buyer of which is China.
  • Recycling generates more than $117 billion annually in economic activity.
  • Recycling brings in more than $13.2 billion in federal, state and local government revenue.
  • Recycled materials require less energy during the manufacturing process than virgin materials, thereby lowering energy costs and usage.

Job creations was originally touted as a third benefit of recycling.  Thirty years ago, recycling created four times as many jobs as waste disposal.  While the job creation benefit is less clear today, recycling is still responsible for employing 534,000 workers.

Recycling Creates Manufacturing Jobs

While larger national and international companies are moving to technology, including automation and optical sorting, smaller, locally-owned operations still rely on people. We have positions for unskilled workers who sort the recyclables to meet industry specifications.  They then have the opportunity to learn skills needed to operate equipment such as forklifts, shredders, cutters and balers.  These are not necessarily “careers” but they do provide unskilled workers the opportunity to learn skills and establish a work history.  Some of those who start as sorters will eventually become professional drivers, customer service representatives and salespeople.  Others may buy out the owners and become entrepreneurs themselves.  And while many manufacturers face skilled worker shortages, there are also shortages in these positions as well because no one aspires to be “blue collar” any more.

Recycling Needs YOU Now More Than Ever

If recycling is a first link in the manufacturing supply chain, YOU are the first link in the recycling chain. With the Chinese import policy changes, reducing contamination is critical.  The “Green Fence,” implemented in 2013, was intended to ensure that imported bales of recyclables, especially plastic and paper, did not contain garbage and other materials. (  In July of this year, the Chinese government launched the “National Sword,” which may result in the outright ban of some recyclables.  They remain concerned that garbage is still being sent to their country knowingly under the guise of “recyclables.”  With the switch to single-stream, contamination has been on the rise.  In response, recyclers are slowing down their sorting systems and adding personnel to their sorting lines.  Municipalities are increasing their education efforts, issuing warnings and leaving contaminated bins at the curb.  No more “wishcycling” – wishing it can be recycled and letting someone else pick it out if it can’t be.

Keep Those Recyclables and Manufacturing Jobs in the U.S.

Which brings us back to Manufacturing Day. Many of the “green” jobs associated with recycling have been created in the countries that import our exported recyclables.  This trading relationship started out as the  backhauling of cardboard bales to China on containers that had previously sailed back empty.   The U.S. cardboard could be used to make new shipping boxes for the Chinese imports.  As China’s economy exploded, so did China’s demand for all type of U.S. recyclables, growing into $6 billion in trade.  We collect the recyclables, ship them to China and then buy back the finished products, everything from steel to garden hoses to copy paper.  One manufacturing expert likened this relationship to that of colonialism, where the colony ships its raw materials to its colonizer for the colonizing power’s economic growth.

One of the reasons cited by potential domestic users of recyclables is the lack of a reliable, clean supply. “I think in the long run this will force some upgrades in infrastructure and get us to the point where we can actually create better quality material, which means we don’t have to ship around garbage” says Ellen Martin, vice president of impact and strategic initiatives at Closed Loop Partners. With better quality and more plentiful recyclables available, hopefully the investment will extend beyond recycling infrastructure to domestic end-market manufacturers as well.

Recycling and Manufacturing:  An Opportunity to Close the Loop

Today, the environmental buzzword is “Zero Waste.” What if we actually incorporated the earlier environmental rallying cry of “Close the Loop” into the “Zero Waste” plans?  Revitalize our own shuttered paper and steel mills and invest in manufacturers who can substitute curbside plastic containers for petroleum based plastics.  The “Green Fence” was a wake-up call but we hit “snooze.”  Now, as “National Sword” cuts through our recycling markets, we have another opportunity. As American manufacturers strive to “take charge of the public image of manufacturing” perhaps we can also change the public image of recycling as “separating our trash” and recognize it as the vital link in the manufacturing supply chain of raw materials ready for domestic consumption.