The knock on effect

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2015

Jim Glauser, Associate Director of IHS Chemical, considers the implications of China’s Green Fence Initiative for plastics recycling in countries around the world. 

China’s recent crackdown on the importation of contaminated scrap has served as a warning to North American and European recyclers to improve their processing facilities or turn elsewhere for their waste disposal.

For years, China has been the world’s leading recycler of scrap, importing up to 70% of the world’s post-consumer plastic waste. For China, the plastics provide a ready, low-cost supply of resins for the country’s thriving manufacturing sector. Exporting countries, for their part, can divert a portion of their waste that might otherwise be landfilled or incinerated. Ship owners have benefitted as well, as the container ships that haul manufactured goods on the outward journey can be refilled with scrap for the return passage.

In 2013, China enacted the Green Fence Initiative (GFI), where scrap-carrying vessels have been inspected carefully at Chinese ports for insects, food, medical and animal waste. In some cases, shippers have been charged fees for the added inspection time, and in other instances their scrap bales have been denied entry to China entirely, requiring additional freight charges to return the container to the USA or other locations.

China’s environmental laws were passed in 1996, but the Government only began to enforce them in 2013. Some of this was environment driven, but much of it was politically motivated to reduce governmental corruption. GFI is still having an effect on containers of plastics, but primarily for mixed (co-mingled) plastic bales and mixed film bales. It has not had a lasting impact on clean segregated bales. Mixed bales under scrutiny are materials recovery facility (MRF) mixed bales, mixed film bales and agricultural films. Chinese recyclers are buying mixed three-to-seven resin code bales primarily for its polypropylene content. In general, films are more costly to recycle. They have a greater surface area than bottles, making consumption of water and drying more expensive.

Increasingly, MRFs are going to single-stream recycling facilities. All paper, plastics, metals and other materials are mixed in a collection truck, instead of being sorted by the depositor into separate commodities. As a result, unless the recycler separates the plastic material, a contaminated bale results.
Currently, resin codes 1 and 2 are relatively clean and not an issue. They are also the largest volume plastics recycled globally. PET is typically found in water and soft drink bottles, while HDPE is found in milk and detergent bottles and is readily separable. Resin codes 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 are not as easy to separate and have led to the issue of cross-contamination.
The situation leaves many municipalities – particularly in the USA – in a bind. China’s historical ready acceptance of municipal waste has meant that many cities have neglected to develop their own recycling infrastructure to reprocess the ever-increasing volumes of plastic scrap. Already, the proportion of US plastics waste that is landfilled stands at 75–80%.
Western Europe has a more advanced plastic recycling infrastructure, with
more than 35% of plastic scrap used for energy recovery and an overall plastics reclamation rate – including recycling – above 60%. Additionally, as European manufacturers face comparatively high polyethylene production expenses, there is a healthier market for the use of recycled plastic versus virgin chemicals for feedstock to save costs.

Depending on the type of plastic, trade of plastics to China has changed. Clean-bale trade to China continues to grow, while mixed bale trade has declined. With increasing amounts of plastics being generated for packaging, western governments are facing pressure to expand their recycling infrastructure. Meeting scrap recycler requirements will induce them to improve the collection, sorting and processing of plastic wastes to reduce contaminant levels. This challenge is made even more costly and difficult by the unrelenting introduction of new plastic packaging materials with unique compositions tailored to provide superior performance for specific applications, which increases the technical complexity of plastics recycling.

For communities that choose not to upgrade their recycling infrastructure, the only real alternative is conversion of plastic waste to energy – electricity, synthetic gas and recycled feedstock for new plastics. In China and elsewhere, landfilling is seen less and less as an option.

GFI’s first three months

scrap transactions rejected

7,600 tonnes of materials rejected

US$11.3bln export value of scrap from the USA to China in 2011

tonnes waste generated annually worldwide

Chinese waste imports in 2010

7.4m tonnes of discarded plastic

28m tonnes of waste paper

5.8m tonnes of steel scrap

250% increase in European exports of plastic waste between 2000–2008

(Statistics from International Solid Waste Assocation) 

Resin codes

Resin code 1 – polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin

Resin code 2 – high-density polyethylene (HDPE)

Resin code 3 – polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Resin code 4 – low-density and linear low-density polyethylene (LDPE and LLDPE)

Resin code 5 – polypropylene (PP)

Resin code 6 – polystyrene (PS)

Resin code 7 – all other