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January sees 99% reduction in plastic scrap imported to China

Asia – ‘Only a fraction’ of government-approved plastic scrap was shipped to China from abroad during the first weeks of January when compared to corresponding batches in the preceding year, reveals Dr Steve Wong, executive president of the China Scrap Plastics Association (CSPA) and chairman of Hong Kong-based Fukutomi Corp.

So far, ‘only 9.3 tonnes’ of plastic scrap have been approved to enter China this month, states Dr Wong in an email to CSPA members.

It is stressed that this is more than a 99% reduction compared with the 3.8+ million tonnes approved to be imported at the start of 2017.

The drastic change has caused the market with a supply gap of around 5 million tonnes of plastic scrap for which the recycled plastic pellets from South-east Asian countries is ‘far from enough to fill’.

‘Orders from the top’

‘This summer was about more than words on paper – traumatic measures are being taken with regards to ”dirty scrap” being shipped to China,’ Dr Wong already warned delegates who had gathered in Poland’s capital Warsaw for the latest Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference.

Chinese officials inspected 1792 recycling facilities in July alone, after which around 60% of them were penalised for ‘not being up to standard’, he pointed out.

‘The order is coming from the top – the ban is not a whim, as some people may think,’ according to Dr Wong. The fact is that President Xi Jinping ordered a ‘progressive stop’ of imports of solid wastes because he believes this can be replaced by domestic supplies by 2019.

‘Volume difficult to absorb’

Looking at the figures, however, this remains questionable. China imported 7.3 million tonnes of plastic scrap in 2016, which is more than 50% of the total volume of all exporting countries. ‘Such large volume is difficult to be absorbed by the remaining importing countries within such a short time’, Wong stresses.

While increasing the volume of exports to South-east Asian countries, India, and others, apart from raising domestic recycling and reuse, the low-end plastic items still have no alternative outlet other than landfills and incineration in exporting countries.

This is very concerning as the capacity of landfills and incineration plants in many exporting countries such as UK, Germany, USA, and Japan, are not capable of handling the increased volume yet.’

Symbolism over substance?

Ultimately, the motivations for recycling are still in place ‘even if the world’s biggest market is having second thoughts’, Dr Wong reminded delegates in the Polish capital. In his view, the global market is likely to move more towards recycling at source and ‘reshape itself’ in the next two years.

‘Everyone in the recycling industry knows that scrap is not garbage,’ Dr Wong contended. ‘If this ban proves anything, it is that symbolism is sometimes more powerful than substance.’

The full report detailing the Paper & Plastics Conference highlights will be published in our upcoming issue.  

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