My friend Holly sat across from me frowning at a green plastic spoon that had been left behind on our table. It had the word “compostable” molded onto the handle.

“These aren’t compostable, they aren’t even biodegradable. If a material is made from plants that doesn’t necessarily mean it can be easily broken down in your everyday compost. It has to go through an [industrial process that] requires a lot of energy,” she tells me.

“It’s another way the public is being tricked.”

Holly, a 26-year-old energy analyst for Microsoft, has always been vocal about her dislike of one-use plastics. Her view is backed by the sheer ubiquity of plastic waste being produced: A recent report in Science Advances shows that an alarmingly low amount of plastic is actually recycled—around 9 percent, of which a tenth is being re-recycled.

Waste typically grows in line with gross national income. Accordingly, in 2014, America was ranked highest in waste generated per capita and added an estimated 347 million pounds of waste to the global stream of garbage. Of that, around a third was exported. More than half of which went to China.

The ships China sends to the U.S. are filled with manufactured goods of all kinds. Once the ship’s containers are emptied, they are typically restocked with “recovered” municipal waste—recycling—before returning to China. The recovered material is then sorted through, cleaned and used in various manufacturing processes. This cycle repeats itself nearly 4,000 times daily.

For years, the U.S. (and most of the western world) has relied on China to absorb the excess supply of recovered materials into their booming manufacturing process. But that is about to change.

Last July, China notified the World Trade Organization that starting January 1, they would ban the import of 24 kinds of solid waste. The filing reflects how China is attempting to comport themselves globally: as a protector and a leader. In this case, they are protecting their people from becoming the world’s trash collector and their land from “highly polluted” waste.

Regardless of geopolitical intent, the order dissolves the paradigm created by global trade and historically exploited Chinese labor.

“Some pretty bad incentives were set up,” Peter Spendelow, a recycling specialist working at Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, told me over the phone. “Labor costs in China were so cheap, it was better for recycling facilities in the U.S. to bundle their contaminated, mixed recycling and send it off to China for sorting rather than pay the higher labor costs required to do the same work in the U.S.”

For years, the U.S. has relied on China to absorb the excess supply of recovered materials into their booming manufacturing process.

But China is outwardly changing. In recent years, the country has launched a laudable, yet overdue, effort to combat environmental degradation. In his three-hour address to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping mentioned the environment 89 times (versus the economy, which only got 70 mentions) while laying out major policy changes.

China’s ruling party basically had no choice. The pollution in China is palpable. A portion of the problem was laid bare in a documentary called “Plastic China” that went viral in China and was subsequently removed from the internet. The documentary stars a small, privately owned plastic-recycling yard (one of 5,000 in the small town) staffed by two families. The children of the families share a relationship with the mounds of abundant plastic similar to one the more privileged might have with the trees and grasses of an idyllic countryside.

The ban is being implemented by limiting the contamination rate of imported material to 0.5 percent. Contamination—caused by people tossing non-recoverable paper, food, green waste, wood and other non-recyclables into their recycling bins—is omnipresent within the recycling stream, with some community programs averaging as high as 35 percent.

When news of the WTO filing broke, most in the recycling industry assumed the Chinese would back off and lessen their mandate. They haven’t. “Chinese inspectors came to Pioneer Recycling, a facility in Tacoma, Washington, and inspected 3,000 pounds of paper bundles,” Spendelow told me. “They found one milk jug and a piece of cloth the size of a shoe, and they said: ‘That’s it, you cannot send any of this.’” Pioneer was left scrambling with what to do with 3,000 pounds of excess material.

Since the evaporation of the Chinese market didn’t correspondingly abate the flow of waste, there is a massive oversupply issue. And it’s not just disrupting the operating norms of waste management systems—it’s leading to the erasure of what is considered recyclable material.

In 1983, Oregon passed the Recycling Opportunity Act, a law that requires cities and counties over 4,000 in population to offer recycling services to anyone being provided waste disposal services. Their definition for what was included as “recyclable materials” was based on an economic consideration rather than an altruistic one: any material that would cost less to recycle than landfill was considered recyclable.

“The costs of sending material to landfill in [Portland] is still pretty high,” Spendelow told me. “But in Medford [Oregon], for example, their cost of disposal is far cheaper than what it would cost for them to sort, clean and transport the materials up to their ‘local’ recycling facilities.” The Oregon DEQ had to step in and issue what is called a short-term disposal “concurrence” or an allowance for places like Medford to landfill material that was previously recyclable.

As of November 2017, 2,892 tons have been landfilled. There was not a waste concurrence filled in all of 2016.

Still, municipalities have been vocal about their continuation of local recycling programs. If programs were halted, facilities would shut-down, crippling any hope of stabilizing the market for recyclable materials. The programs are also extremely important for the management of the world’s waste stream, and the perception of local communities plays into the program’s effectiveness.

The world’s waste management system is broken. But it isn’t hopeless.

Yet the requirements have forced material recovery facilities to rethink their operations. “In response to China’s contaminant requirements, [facilities] are slowing down their belts and re-running the material more than once. But a lot of the contamination is hard to spot,” Matt Korot, the program director of Portland Metro’s recycling program, told me. More workers have been added to inspect fewer materials, pushing up the costs to run the material recovery facilities. It has gotten so bad, facilities are now charging collectors for bringing material in, rather than paying them for the material as they did previously.

Some see the crisis as an opportunity to address larger systemic issues within the waste management business. Innovative proposals have been made to create cities made of waste that would be built around a waste-to-energy plant. In the short term, many are calling for more automation at facilities and for more local facilities to be built nearer to sites that use the recovered material in their manufacturing processes. But so far, it’s been politically untenable.

“No one wants to have waste facilities in their backyard. They come with trucks, traffic, odors and, historically, air pollution,” an East Coast collector told me, who asked to remain anonymous due to the possibility of regulatory backlash. “At national waste meetings, [the organizers] will take questions on anything except recycling. They do not want to discuss how the waste is actually being handled, what the end result of their programs are and how they are being usurped by poor infrastructure and planning. They just want to be assured people are recording the tonnage of waste that is supposedly recycled, and then going about their business.”

The Chinese government has been unsympathetic to the global backlash. China Daily, an English-language paper in the country, noted: “[The U.S.] never acknowledge[s] or mention[s] the fact that cheap Chinese manufactured goods, from blue jeans to toys, have made them more affordable to American consumers while China bears the brunt of the pollution that comes from making them…Relocation of pollution has long been a strategy by advanced countries to exploit the often-lax environmental standards in developing countries. It is a blemish that few Western companies like people to know about while they brag about their so-called corporate social responsibility.”

In short, China is blaming us for engaging in waste-risk transfer, in which the pollutants created by various materials get transferred to the people of faraway countries, whose generally poorer populations bear the brunt of its costs. While it’s typical posturing from an authoritarian government to shift the blame onto other actors, China isn’t wrong.

But their decision to partially throw off the yoke of foreign toxic waste does little to combat the crux of the issue: the world’s waste management system is broken. But it isn’t hopeless.

Communities are beginning to champion reuse and are better educating their citizens as to what can and cannot be recycled. At the very least, the embargo is forcing local governments to address how their programs have been functioning. “We have a [recycling] contamination problem in this country. And it needs to be addressed,” Joaquin Mariel told industry colleagues during a webinar hosted by The Recycling Partnership.

For now, it is the story of modernity, in which a deeply flawed system is needed for our survival.