China ban on plastic and paper imports raises urgent UK quality questions

The UK recycling sector is in limbo following China’s announcement that it will be seeking a ban on the import of all scrap plastics and unsorted waste paper, a move that some recyclers have said could cause ‘chaos’ in meeting recycling targets and a rise in packaging recovery note (PRN) prices.

Notifying the World Trade Organisation (WTO) of its decision, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said it envisages the action on ‘foreign garbage’ to be in place by the start of 2018, applying to four classes and 24 kinds of solid waste, including ‘plastics waste from living sources, unsorted waste paper and waste textile materials’.

China ban on plastic and paper imports raises urgent UK quality questionsThe Chinese submission to the WTO’s Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade stated: ‘We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China's environment seriously. To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.’

A study by the ministry into pollution caused by imported waste processing firms had, as of last week, found irregularities with 590 companies worldwide – 66 per cent of the firms inspected.

While the details of the proposed ban remain unclear, with little noise coming out of China on the matter, the recycling industry in the UK has been swift to respond to the alarming news, emphasising the need for a renewed focus on the quality of recyclable waste throughout the supply stream, given China’s hardening stance towards the questionable quality of some imports.

In response to the news, Jakob Rindegren, Recycling Policy Advisor at the Environmental Services Association (ESA), said: “ESA has been made aware that China has notified the WTO about a ban on various recyclates, including scrap plastics and unsorted paper, taking effect from 1 January 2018. We also understand submissions have been made to contest the ban. It is still unclear whether the ban would be unconditional or allow materials meeting stricter quality limits.

“ESA is following these developments closely and our members are committed to limit any disruptions that could occur. However, it is too early to comment on the implications of a ban, if imposed, not least before all details are known.”

Ban could ‘cause chaos’ in meeting plastic recycling targets

China imported some 7.3 million tonnes of plastic scrap in 2015, representing 48 percent of the globally traded total. David Wilson, Managing Director of Vanden Recycling, a nationwide plastics recycler and exporter, said that the ban on scrap plastic imports is not a surprise, but that it could cause ‘chaos’ with recycling targets:

“There have been warnings from China that a ban on imports of all plastics scrap was on the agenda,” said Wilson. “But in the UK, we have been too slow to respond and this is going to cause chaos in meeting plastic recycling targets and will likely lead to even higher PRN/PERN prices for plastics as a key market is cut off.

"There had been rumours that China would allow the highest quality regrind to be imported, but this is not the case. Only first remelt quality material will now be allowed into the country.

“For those that have put all their eggs in the basket that is China, they are going to have to revisit their business models or face the consequences.”

‘Wake-up call’ on quality

Colin Clarke, Managing Director of Mark Lyndon Paper Enterprises, a major exporter of recyclate to China, added: "For the time being, we are still able to export OCC (old corrugated containers), mixed paper and other grades to China as it is only unsorted waste paper imports that have been banned. The word from China is that we purchase a grade made to a global specification and not unsorted papers. Normal caveats apply when dealing with the Chinese authorities that if bad shipments are received, then mixed papers in particular could be under threat of a ban.

"We should also be clear that China is very serious about protecting its environment and the public health of its citizens. If we do not ensure our exports of paper are of the very highest quality, then we are at risk closing our most important market for recovered paper.

"The UK, Europe and other Asian destinations simply do not have the capacity to take all of our excess recovered paper, so we must make sure China remains open to us by providing it with a high quality secondary commodity."

Signs that the Chinese government were clamping down on low-quality waste imports were among the reasons that the Recycling Association, a network of over 80 independent waste and recycling operators, launched a Quality First campaign last year to raise awareness of the need for the UK to improve the quality of its recyclate or face the possibility of declining markets for its materials.

Responding to this week’s news from China, Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association, said: "We launched the campaign to highlight how we risked losing China as our biggest market for recycled materials if we did not get our act together, and now China has taken the action that proves it.

"China's filing of this notification to the WTO has to act as a wake-up call to all parts of the supply chain that quality has to come first. In the notification, China made it very clear that it will no longer tolerate high levels of contamination from ‘dirty wastes' or ‘hazardous wastes' that it sees as damaging to both its ‘environmental interests' and ‘people's health'.

"Therefore, let's make sure that our paper is of the highest quality so that we can maintain this essential market. With the ban on imports of all plastics scrap, this is a warning that if we do not meet the highest quality standards for paper, then we could face a similar ban in future."

China getting tough on waste

Eager to discard its reputation as one of the planet’s most polluting countries, China has seen a policy shift regarding waste and clean energy production, declaring at the start of the year that the government was dedicating  an additional 252 billion yuan (£29 billion) over the next three years to address the country’s waste problem.

Long a destination for lower quality recyclate from the West, China’s announcement yesterday is the most recent in a series of crackdowns on the import of foreign waste, the latest being the National Sword campaign, launched in February 2017, run by the country’s General Administration of Customs to come down hard on the illegal smuggling of ‘foreign waste’ and other products, accompanied by more rigorous inspections of legal shipments. The campaign has already resulted in hundreds of containers full of imported waste turned away at Chinese ports.

The National Sword campaign bears more than a close resemblance to a previous campaign known as Operation Green Fence, which was launched in 2013 and saw a more stringent approach from Chinese customs officials towards incoming shipments of foreign waste, with 800,000 tonnes rejected in the first six months and 247 companies losing their import licences.

It remains to be seen to what extent the proposed ban will apply, or even if it will be upheld, given that we know submissions have been made to the WTO to contest the ban. Nevertheless, there are sure to be many restless nights and bitten fingernails within the industry over the coming days and weeks as the story unfolds.

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