I had no idea this was going on, but it turns out a lot of what I put in my curbside recycling bin has been sent to China. According to Bloomberg it works something like this: Because of the large trade imbalance between the U.S. and China, container ships that bring manufactured goods from China to the U.S. would end up going back to China empty. Rather than doing that, they are willing to take recyclable trash back to China to next to nothing. And Chinese factories are very happy to have it as raw materials to manufacture more things to send to us. An interesting implication, to me, is that the volume of trade between the two countries must be roughly equal, but the weight and dollar amount must be very unequal.
Another interesting factoid is the top export categories (from the U.S. to China) by dollar amount:
The U.S last year exported more than 37 million metric tons of scrap commodities valued at $16.5 billion to 155 countries, said Adler of the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries. China accounted for almost one-third of that total—about $5.2 billion.
By comparison, the top two export categories to China in 2016 were miscellaneous grain, seeds, and soybeans ($15 billion) and aircraft ($15 billion).
The focus of the article is actually that China is changing its rules to require cleaner materials before it will accept them, and that could disrupt this market. How dare they! I also heard on the fake news that giant killer hurricanes are actually a hoax created by the Chinese government.