Plastics Recycling Update

Scrap plastic exports drop to new low

Recovered plastic exports out of the U.S. have dropped dramatically in recent years, hitting a new low in 2023. | EG/Shutterstock

Recovered plastic exports out of the U.S. dropped slightly in 2023, bringing a record low for the fourth consecutive year.

The U.S. Census Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, recently released December 2023 export figures, allowing for a full-year analysis.

The U.S. exported 918 million pounds of scrap plastic in 2023, down from 962 million pounds the prior year.

2023 marks the fourth straight year of the lowest plastic export volume on record since the U.S. Census Bureau began keeping records in 2002. And it’s a dramatic drop from where exports were at a decade ago: In 2014, U.S. scrap plastic exports hit a record high of 4.8 billion pounds, and the 2023 volume represents an 81% drop.

Much of the decrease was driven by China’s retreat from the global scrap plastic trade beginning in 2018. In 2017, for instance, China imported 1.2 billion pounds of U.S. recovered plastic – more than the entire amount exported from the U.S. in 2023. China slashed scrap plastic imports in 2018, and today the amount of recovered plastic flowing from the U.S. to China is negligible.

Unlike in the fiber market shakeup following China’s retreat from that sector, other countries have not increased imports enough to offset the loss of the Chinese market for U.S. scrap plastic.

Beyond the Chinese market exit, increasing global regulations on the scrap plastic trade have impacted export volumes. Amendments to the Basel Convention have limited the markets available to U.S. exporters, leaving Canada as by far the largest importer of U.S. material.

In 2023, the largest export markets for U.S. scrap plastic were Canada (339 million pounds), Mexico (165 million pounds), India (101 million pounds), Malaysia (75 million pounds) and Vietnam (44 million pounds).

By grade, mixed (classified in trade data as “other”) plastics made up the largest portion in 2023 at 37%. Polyethylene made up another 37%, with polystyrene, PVC and PET making up the remainder.

Despite the substantial decrease in volume in recent years, U.S. scrap plastic exports continue to receive heightened scrutiny. Just this week, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Last Beach Cleanup – two organizations that monitor plastic exports – issued a report highlighting shipments coming out of California. The groups noted a 2021 law approved by California lawmakers requires that exports out of the state meet Basel Convention criteria, and the groups presented evidence indicating California’s exports are consistently exceeding acceptable contamination levels.


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