Will China stop importing plastic waste?

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Exporters of recycled plastic to China are concerned that the Chinese government could block imports of this type of material as part of its National Sword policy. The National Sword policy follows the previous Green Fence initiative, which aimed to block poor-quality recycled material being imported to China and resulted in the stockpiling of plastic waste at recycling facilities in many countries.

The president of China Scrap Plastics Association, Steve Wong, warned delegates at a meeting of the Bureau of International Recycling in Hong Kong that an overall ban could be put in place within five or ten years. Film scrap imports to China could be stopped as soon as September of this year.

China currently imports seven million tonnes of recycled plastic every year, and Mr Wong stated that if it was necessary to divert this, there were no other countries in the region that could accept it. He added that increased domestic processing would be the best solution to this problem.

At the present time, most of China’s ports are checking all recycled plastic containers being imported.

The National Sword policy is part of the Chinese government’s campaign against the illegal smuggling of products such as “foreign waste”. It is aimed at different types of smuggling, including guns, drugs and tax-related goods, but many plastic waste exporters are already considering looking for markets elsewhere. Countries in South East Asia such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia are favoured, because some manufacturers who are end users of the products have relocated their factories to these countries to escape China’s increasing production costs. Processing plants have also been set up in South East Asia recently by some plastic recyclers.

Surendra Patawari Borad, the China Scrap Plastics Association’s committee chair, said that the possible ban was causing panic in the United States and that companies were experiencing increased difficulties in clearing customs due to the new National Sword policy. There had been price drops of over 50 per cent for some lower-grade recycled plastics, and some had decreased to near zero levels. Higher-grade plastics had also decreased in price over the last two months by fifteen to twenty per cent, causing what he described as a “bloodbath”.

Although the 2013 Green Fence initiative caused a great deal of disruption when it was first introduced, it is not yet clear how the National Sword campaign will compare with this. The Green Fence initiative was launched very suddenly and provoked headlines around the world before the disruption it caused settled down. The aim of the campaign was to reduce pollution from recycling facilities that were not complying with legislation and to increase the quality of the plastic recycled materials. Imports were reduced by ten per cent in the year. According to one recycling industry association in China, National Sword is causing less panic in the industry than Green Fence, because companies are now better regulated and disciplined and many of the recyclers who did not have proper facilities or permits have now closed down.