Scrap plastic imported into China this year will likely plummet from 2017 levels, possibly to less than 5% of what it was last year, according to an estimate from a Chinese plastics recycling organisation.
Steve Wong, the executive president of the Beijing-based China Scrap Plastics Association, said China has authorised import permits for only about 375 million pounds of plastic for recycling, or 3% of the 12.9 billion pounds imported in 2017.
"In 2018, at this moment, this is only a projection. Up to last month, only 40,000 tonnes (88.1 million pounds) of plastic scrap was allowed or approved by the authorities for importation," Wong said in a May 8 speech at a recycling conference held as part of NPE2018 in Orlando.
A drop was expected, given China's strict National Sword crackdown last year on imported scrap plastics and other materials. But Wong's comments reinforce the scale of the dramatic shifts underway in global recycling trades.
In the wake of China's July 2017 notice to the World Trade Organization that it was sharply restricting recycled imports, Wong estimated 60 to 70% of Chinese plastics recycling companies that relied on imports have closed, and about 10% have shifted to the domestic industry.
The remaining roughly 20% have moved operations to other countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, where they refine and reprocess the scrap into pellets for direct export to China manufacturing plants, Wong said.
"The most popular place for recycling nowadays is Southeast Asian countries and the most popular countries are Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia," Wong said.
The “unprecedented changes” means there's still a shortage of recycled pellets for Chinese factories, one that can't be filled by domestic recyclers, he said.
"We talk about 5 million tonnes of recycled pellets needed in China, I would say actually more than 5 million tonnes, because of the growth of infrastructure we have in China, the One Belt, One Road [government plan]," he said.
At its peak in recent years, he noted that China imported about 9 million tonnes (19.9 billion pounds) of scrap plastics.
Wong predicted the shortfall in China will be met, in the short-term, at least, with virgin materials.
"What they will do is it will be filled by the prime material," he said.
While the global recycling business model is shifting, Wong cautioned the new strategy of sending scrap to other countries and reprocessing it into pellets to be exported to China faces challenges too. Chinese customs officials, for example, are making very detailed inspections of recycled pellet shipments in ports.
A March report from CSPA said that 50% or more of shipments of recycled pellets were being subjected to random checks by customs officials, who want to make sure that that the imports are going directly to factories as feedstock.
Wong repeated that 50% figure in his speech and said government officials are concerned about unprocessed plastic scrap being mixed in with the pellets. The upshot, CSPA's report said, is that it can take up to a month for the pellet shipments to clear customs.
"Once they find that recycled pellets imported are not in line with their declaration, the container will be sent back," Wong said. He said companies need to standardise recycled resin pellet shipments to China, including colour and size of pellets.
As well, there are concerns about long-term viability of some of the new recycling hot spots. Wong said some Chinese recyclers who have shifted operations to other countries are wary of a similar import ban happening there, if those governments follow China's lead and become concerned about the water, air and soil pollution from recycling operations.
"People move from China to these countries because of the relatively cheap conditions, but nobody can guarantee that these Southeast Asian countries will not enforce their own National Sword or certain plastic will be banned," Wong said.
He advocated some technology improvements, such as recycling companies using dry wash cleaning to reduce wastewater contamination. And he said there's demand in the industry to develop better machinery to process lower-end recycled materials.
Wong said the larger solution is for more recycling in the countries where the waste is generated.
Only about 14% of the 340 million tonnes of plastic used each year globally is recycled, and that, combined with concerns about ocean pollution and other environmental problems, will lead to more pressure to reduce single-use plastics and boost recycling, he said.
"We actually have to make sure whatever we produce we can recycle," he said.