If U.S. recyclers play their cards right, China’s “Green Fence” could actually open a door to a bigger, healthier recycling industry here at home.
In February, China imposed strict enforcements on existing regulations regarding the importation of dirty scrap materials into the country. This crack down on poor quality and contamination has led to a substantial drop in plastic waste imports and put some recyclers out of business, at least for now.
The toothier policy has put pressure on many municipalities, which now have difficulties with some of the low-grade plastics they collect as they can no longer ship them to China. They’ll have to refine their sorting and sanitation processes in order to appease port authorities, but in the meantime, poor-quality plastics are piling up around their ears.
Some U.S. plastics recyclers, however, are turning the Green Fence debacle into an opportunity for growth-and jobs. The large scale companies that have already invested in recycling services and pollution control are looking for a shift in the global market and the ability to operate at a more fair-cost level. Some of the most capable big-time recycling facilities are already seeing significant growth, such as Parc Corp of Romeoville, Ill., which has doubled production in the last six months.
It seems recycling executives have been waiting painstakingly for such an event and rejoice in a leveled playing field. For many years, they’ve been operating costly facilities with underwhelming levels of production, waiting for the flood gates to open.
In 2011, just under 53 million tons of recycling were collected in the U.S.. Almost half of that was exported-a record 23 million tons. Around 16 million tons of that went to China, which was a 23 percent increase from the year before. Recyclables were the United States’ top export to China in 2011, a trade arrangement worth $11 billion.
In the three months after Operation Green Fence was put into place (February through April), 55 shipments of plastics were rejected at Chinese ports, sending more than 7,600 tons of recyclable materials back to the suppliers. The enforcement of China’s regulations means only the sorted and sanitized shipments will be accepted.
Even though 7,600 tons is a mere drop in the bucket, the U.S. is looking for ways to recycle plastics and other scrap materials here at home. Not only would U.S. recyclers be avoiding any possible rejections, they’d also be bringing industrial jobs back to Americans and creating an opportunity for some economic growth.
Ideally, this shift in the global market will allow large-scale recyclers to invest in new equipment and technologies, helping them capture the materials that were previously destined for landfills or Chinese ports.
In a Q&A webinar hosted earlier this month by The Society of Plastics and Industry, recycling industry executives discussed how they see China’s policy affecting them in the future.
Mike Biddle, president of MBA Polymers Inc., is working with his customers – some of the largest mixed-waste collectors in the U.S. – to improve the value of their recyclables, and hopefully recycle all of their plastics here in the U.S., where Biddle is planning to build a full-scale processing plant.
Saurabh Naik, president and CEO of Intercontinental Export-Import Inc. (IEI), says they are assessing new markets for low-quality scrap materials, but that the company also has significant investments in the U.S..
“We see the Green Fence as an opportunity to grow domestically, to create new markets for our export material, to create new jobs,” said Saureen Naik, IEI’s export sales manager of overseas operations.
Naik explained that the company is also brainstorming new ways to manufacture products out of recycled materials domestically, and in the next three years, IEI plans to invest at least $30 million in recycling technology and processing in the United States.
The general consensus amongst the group was that the U.S. has been using China as a scapegoat, a low-end scrap dumping ground, for too long. China is now dealing with a severe pollution problem. This policy enforcement really isn’t a bad thing for U.S. recyclers, but an opportunity to establish an industry and take care of our own waste.
“They want resources, not garbage, and you can’t blame them for that,” Biddle said.
(All quotations originally recorded by Plastics News.)