Chinese waste crackdown provides UK quality opportunity – BPF

The plastics industry says action on waste imports in China gives the UK an opportunity to drive up quality on recyclable materials, after China’s General Administration of Customs (GAC) released more details about the crackdown on illegal shipments of waste into the country.

Chinese waste crackdown provides UK quality opportunity – BPF The campaign, translated variously as ‘National Sword 2017’ and ‘Border-gate Sword 2017’, is a nine-month course of action, which started on 1 March, to strengthen supervision of imports into the country, including preventing illegal activity with foreign waste.

The GAC is working with the Environmental Protection Department, AQSIQ (General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine) and police on the operation, forming a task force to tackle any suspected illegal activities found at any stage from import through to the final recycling process, including processing methods and end products made from plastic regrinds.

According to the GAC, the task force will:

  • thoroughly supervise the enterprises concerned and the materials held in stock;
  • follow all leads, perform in-depth investigations towards the full chain of activities, and take immediate legal action against individuals or entities breaking the law; and
  • identify high-risk goods and enterprises for priority checking, conduct follow-up checks of high-risk targets and penalise those convicted of not actually performing recycling operations or of supplying/possessing illegal goods.

Of particular interest to the task force is the smuggling of foreign waste, including industrial waste, electronic scrap, household waste and plastic waste. In order to strengthen intelligence on foreign waste streams, the GAC says it will work closely with international law enforcement and take necessary joint actions.

Illegal activity in the import and export of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) in China was the subject of a bill introduced to the US Congress in July 2016, after a study by the Senate Armed Services Committee found 1,800 cases of counterfeit parts in military technology.

More than 70 per cent of the cases were traced back to Guangdong Province in southern China, where, the study said, the counterfeiting industry coverts them into products that seem to be new. 

Later that year, in December, police in the Chinese province of Jiangsu arrested three men as part of an investigation into the illegal recycling of over 3,000 tonnes of hazardous medical waste – worth around £4.5 million – into plastics used for toys and tableware.

Campaign will drive quality in UK

The British Plastics Federation Recycling Group (BPFRG) has welcomed the Chinese government’s move to take action on illegal waste activities, saying the campaign will be a driver to increase the quality of sorting plastic waste for recycling.

The British Plastics Federation is a trade association representing more than 500 members from across the plastics supply chain, and the organisation’s recycling group represents businesses involved in the collection, sorting and reprocessing of plastic waste together with companies that convert waste plastics back into new polymer materials and products.

At present, the group says, current avenues for low-quality sorted material through export to countries like China prevents a focus on driving up the quality of the material collected within the UK. Ultimately, this means that UK recyclers have to spend resources sorting material, even if it has already been through a sorting process, before they can reprocess it, which in turn reduces their yield.

Roger Baynham, Chairman of the Recycling Group, commented: “A quality standard for all material going into the plastic recycling stream, whether it is recycled in the UK or exported, would ensure a level playing field and enable UK facilities to compete for material.

“This would also reduce any effects that an initiative such as ‘Border-gate Sword 2017’ might have upon the market. This standard needs to apply for all parts of the plastic recycling industry, including packaging, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), end-of-life vehicles and construction.

“A sustainable market for plastic recycling within the UK would ensure this valuable material is available to UK-based manufacturers, which would help contribute towards a local circular economy. It would also help support UK jobs within these industries whilst securing resources for the country. The BPFRG has been calling for packaging recovery note (PRN) reform for years as a tool to ensure there is a level playing field with exports – and views the announcement of GAC as a further motivator for the current PRN system to be reviewed.”

Importance of sustainable domestic markets

The BPFRG also says that the GAC announcement shows the importance of having sustainable markets for plastic recycling within the UK and not relying on export.

It suggests that the tightening of controls on imports into China and stricter regulation on facilities within the country means that the market for UK plastic recycling within China is likely to reduce.

In 2013, a similar drive by the Chinese government to lower the amount of contaminated waste being sent to China, Operation Green Fence, set a limit of 1.5 per cent of contaminant in each bale of imported recyclables and carried out inspections of all forms of scrap material.

As a result of that campaign, the GAC said that less foreign waste like plastic films and aluminium cans was being found in shipments designated as paper that were being exported to Chinese mills.

In fact, the Fuyang Paper Association, an organisation representing paper processors in the province of Anhui, said that firms had benefitted by up to 70 million yuan (£8.3 million) from reducing contamination and moisture content in paper imported into the country during the first 10 months of 2013.

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