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For The Recycling Industry, A Crisis – And An Opportunity

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Kerry Klein / Julia Lyu Mears
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Left: Bales of plastic, paper and other recyclables have been stacking up at recycling centers as China restricts the materials it can accept for import. Right: Kate O'Neill, professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley.

The United States' recycling industry is facing a growing crisis. China earlier this year announced policy changes that restrict its imports of the U.S.’s recyclables—changes with tremendous implications, since a third of the U.S.’s recycling exports have historically gone to China. We explored those policy changes in May, speaking with recycling companies and policy experts about what’s changed, and how to find new markets for all that plastic and paper we can no longer ship overseas.

So what does this crisis reveal about the robustness and the fragility of the recycling industry, in California and across the U.S.? What comes next? To answer these questions, we turned to Kate O’Neill, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley who’s currently writing a book on the global waste trade. Listen to the audio above for the full interview.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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