China is projected to import less than 1 percent of the scrap plastic that it did in the first quarter a year ago.
In issuing its first round of import permits for 2018, China established a total limit of 9,335 tons of scrap plastic, which was 99 percent less than the 3.9 million tons authorized in the initial permits for last year.
China also implemented new thresholds for contaminants as of Jan. 1, lowering the limit for plastics to 0.5 percent. The corresponding drop in demand has delivered a massive shock to the scrap industry.
In previous years, 85 percent of plastics collected in the EU, 95 percent of plastics collected in Ireland and almost 16 millions tons of materials from the US were sent to China, according to Customs Today. Businesses have lost revenue and cut jobs as China’s waste import ban has upended the global recycling industry, the newspaper reported.
China is limiting imports in an effort to protect its environment. It hopes to replace imports with domestic materials and to improve its own recycling as well.
But one of the biggest arguments against China’s new rules is that they will hurt the environment rather than help it because the standards are extremely high. Affected materials are less likely to be recycled if they cannot be imported, some experts argue. Materials that aren’t recycled will be thrown away instead.
In the US, mountains of plastics are sitting at recycling centers with nowhere to go. Or, plastics are being sent to the landfill instead of being recycled, Recycling Today reported.
“While increasing the volume of exports to Southeast 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 [many] exporting countries,” Steve Wong, president of the China Scrap Plastic Association (CSPA), wrote in an email to members, according to a Recycling Today article about how China plastic scrap imports have disappeared.
“This is very concerning, as the capacity of [domestic recycling and waste destinations] in many exporting countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Japan, is not capable of handling the increased volume yet.”
The scrap industry also has complained that China has not allowed enough time to react to new laws, nor for the country to do so itself. Countries that were relying on the massive amounts of exports to China are now having to export to other countries or to improve local recycling manufacturing.
China itself reportedly faces a supply gap of 5 million tons of plastic scrap, according to a Resource Recycling story on where exports displaced from China are finding a home.
Scrap imports are surging elsewhere in Asia in the meantime. Materials are being sent to Southeast Asian processors that create pellets which will then be sent to China. Other countries such as India, Thailand, and Vietnam have all significantly increased the amount of scrap plastic they import.
Though this will help offset the massive surplus of plastic scrap, there still needs to be a larger fix globally to combat the issue. Scrap plastic exporters will face an uphill battle over the next few years until the market shifts and local recycling efforts expand enough to account for the supply of materials.