In an unprecedented move in early 2018, China decided to implement stringent new environmental policies, effectively banning the import of 24 grades of waste. These included unsorted mixed papers, post-consumer plastics, and a 0.5% contamination limit for other solid waste material.
Since the 1960’s China created an appetite for recycling markets, which in turn, has been fed by the world’s largest economies. To put this into perspective, the UK recycling industry alone sent about 494 000 tons of plastics and 1.4 million tons of paper waste to China annually. With China suddenly pulling the plug on waste imports, a mammoth problem has been created in global recycling markets.
Impacts across the globe
The ramifications of the waste ban reverberated across the world, with developed nations struggling to find financially sound solutions, having relied on China’s expansive recycling industry for decades. Asian countries such as Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia have become alternative depots for recycling, albeit at a far less capacity than the Chinese. Whilst this is a solution of sorts, these countries are still in the process of developing an environmental and legal framework, in regulating the importing and handling of waste.
Ironically, local Chinese manufacturers have also felt the pinch, Bloomberg reported that China relied on recycled paper for nearly 67% of its fiber requirements, with 41% of it being imports. Larger Chinese recyclers were forced to shift operations to the USA and Southeast Asia to keep their mills running.
Conflicting reports: will the ban be lifted?
Well, not entirely.
The scrap metals industry has been hit the hardest, with Chinese mills paying up to $100 more per ton for scrap iron and steel than its Turkish counterparts (Bloomberg), and highly profitable copper processing plants have also been forced to relocate operations, as 10% of its supply was reliant on imported copper scrap.
With the rest of the world fighting COVID-19, China is on the road to economic recovery, consequently creating a new demand for processed copper. To nurse its economic recovery, China has agreed to reclassify certain waste grades, effective from July 2020: secondary brass, copper and cast aluminum alloys to raw materials quality standard.
Contrastingly, 2021 looks to be a challenging year, as the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment is set to forbid imports of solid waste, and will not accept nor approve applications for solid waste imports.
Havoc on sustainability or an opportunity for innovation?
Exporting to China was the easiest solution- due to its competitive pricing and low limits for contamination, it developed an industry that could process waste into valuable material. But the environmental and health issues that aligned with it, could no longer be ignored by the Chinese government.
Whilst the ban brought about a knee-jerk reaction of incredulity and frustration, some governments, and even private entities have taken up the challenge to (finally) get recycling and waste reduction right- through Zero Waste projects.
Using the waste hierarchy as a guide (below), industries are now focusing on developing circular economy models, instead of reverting to energy recovery and disposal routes.
Within the automotive industry, Subaru Indiana reuses car parts in its design process and Ford has now incorporated recycled plastic bottles into manufacturing of certain car parts. Pharmaceutical giant, Biogen, followed the reuse route and donated used office furniture to schools. More recently, McDonald’s showcased its innovative line of swimwear- created from “upcycled fabric”, made up of recycled plastic McDonald’s straws and post-consumer plastic waste reclaimed from the ocean.
The recycling market
Whether the Chinese National Sword Policy remains a permanent fixture or not, the world has to adapt, innovate, and invest in sustainable projects within its respective domain. The world’s reliance on China has exposed the dirty side of recycling- contaminated recyclables.
Contamination negatively impacts the economic viability of recycling, with valuable material sadly ending up in energy recovery (Europe) or landfill sites. This further points to the importance of separation at source methodologies and digitalisation of waste collection and processing. Reducing cross contamination increases the recyclability of the waste product. Whilst the recycling market is currently in turbulent waters, due to the supply/demand issues caused by the ban, recycling is still the more affordable (and greener) option than energy recovery.
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