Without China, the US and other countries, including Australia, that heavily rely on exporting recyclables, specifically low-grade plastic scrap, to manage an ever-growing waste stream will have to turn to alternative markets, such as Southeast Asia, India, Latin America, and the Middle East.
However, these markets will never fully replace China’s level of consumption: China alone takes in 22 percent of global waste and scrap exports, including 57 percent of the world’s plastic scrap. To ensure the industry’s survival, experts say it is time to focus on improving domestic recycling infrastructure, forging the way for the efficient and profitable recovery and handling of high-grade plastics.
China’s National Sword forces domestic businesses and Western countries to reconsider options.
Four years after China announced their Green Fence initiative, an aggressive inspection effort to cut high contamination levels of recyclable imports in lieu of regulations, the country announced their National Sword campaign, a far stricter policy tantamount to an outright ban of low-grade plastic scrap and set to go into full effect by the end of 2018.
China’s latest plastic import restrictions have led businesses from within and without the country to reassess their market position. Chinese processors and manufacturers are considering moving outside the country, some of which have even considered moving to the US for direct access to recycled plastic feedstock. However, operational viability remains to be determined.
As for scrap plastic exporters, the most pressing issue is how to sustain revenues: should they focus on processing to produce higher quality bales (profit through quality) or hoard mixed materials (profit through volume)?
Western countries, most just starting to succumb to the campaign’s effects as export markets shrink, have also been forced to reflect, especially as recycling organizations call for national conversations regarding a plastics circular economy that is both practical and effective.
The push for a circular economy: Viewing recyclables as a tradeable resource.
Seeking alternative markets, such as in other Southeast Asian countries, is a stopgap – even if these markets begin to flourish. Western countries send thousands of tonnes of plastic scrap and other recyclables for processing in other countries, but this doesn’t mean that all the material is repurposed. Some will inevitably end up in foreign landfills – this is not a sustainable solution as these countries may follow in China’s footsteps as environmental concerns are raised.
Recycling is a problem of perspective: scrap materials are viewed as waste, which is both cheap and an environmental burden. Instead, Western countries need to view scrap plastics through economic principles – that is, waste as wealth.
Though the recovered plastic economy is both young and complicated, uncertainty begets opportunity: For each kind of metal, there are 400 variations of plastic, only a handful of which have reliable markets. And markets are determined by a commodity’s viability – both businesses and governments have the power to influence profitability of recyclables through policy. Just consider even a diamond is worthless if the proper infrastructure and market controls aren’t put into place.
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