And who can blame them? For years, the world has been shipping all sorts of waste to China for it to be sorted, made into new products, and shipped back to us. Low labour rates and lax environmental enforcement have benefitted all parties to this commercial deal (even perhaps the Chinese workers, a job being better than no job).
One of the first warning signs of impending change occurred in 2013 when China launched “Operation Green Fence” to limit imports of scrap materials. Unscrupulous people were sending more garbage than resources. This was followed by the more recent “National Sword” crackdown on smuggling operations. Then last week, China shocked the global recycling industry with the announcement of a scrap import ban effective the end of this year.
“To protect China’s environmental interests and the people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted” read China’s filing of intent with the World Trade Organisation. Details were scarce beyond general statements about multiple plastics, mixed paper, textiles, and other materials. But the impact of the announcement itself has been significant.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) called the new move potentially “devastating” and “catastrophic” for the US recycling industry. The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) labelled the new policy as “serious” and wants more time before it comes into effect.
For Canadians involved in the international recovered paper trade, the challenge is that no one yet fully understands exactly what will be banned. The wording that is being used is “unsorted paper” and “mixed plastics.” If this is taken literally then most of the Canadian paper fibre currently being exported to China will not be impacted. The Green by Nature consortium that handles British Columbia’s Blue Box materials, for example, sorts all residential paper and does not ship single stream (or mixed) unsorted material to the republic.
“If this is not acceptable,” says consortium partner Al Metauro, CEO of Cascades Recovery, “then we will have a challenge. The challenge will not be on the curbside fibre but rather on the demand for old corrugated containers (OCC). The Chinese mills rely on imports and with no curbside fibre they will need an alternative. On the other hand, the Chinese government could also ban imports of OCC considering some of the poor quality being shipped.”
Metauro says a ban on “mixed plastics” will impact material recovery facility (MRF) operators that are not sorting their plastic, glass and metal recyclables (the container stream). This will be a bigger challenge in the US, he says, where many program operators are currently shipping commingled single stream material direct to China. In British Columbia, by contrast, all residential plastics are sorted and consumed locally.