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China quells waste imports, recycling still continues to grow

By: Nina Ying Sun

May 20, 2014

SHANGHAI — Even as China reins in imports of waste plastics, its plastics recycling sector continues to deliver double-digit growth. While China remains the world’s largest importer of waste plastics, its domestic collection and utilization of plastic waste is also growing, according to Ning Hongtao, president of the plastics recycling committee (PRC) of China Plastics Processing Industry Association, who spoke at the Green Forum of Chinaplas 2014.

He said the drop of imported waste plastics caused by last year’s Green Fence initiative — 1 million metric tons to be exact — “was not a big decrease compared to forecast.”

Even though some recyclers are reducing their import volume or shifting to other businesses, new applications for import permits have been gradually increasing, he added. More than 3,000 companies in China are registered to import and process waste plastics. But the total number of plastics recyclers in China exceeds 10,000, Ning said.

Imports represent a minority share of the total amount of plastic waste that is recycled in China. In 2013, out of 24.9 million metric tons of recycled plastics, 7.9 million metric tons, or a little more than 30 percent, was imported, based on data compiled by PRC.

The European Union remains the largest source of waste plastics for China, accounting for a quarter of the country’s total import. 

Within the Chinese plastics recycling industry, more than 40 percent of the total volume is handled by mid-sized or large companies that are mostly located in the coastal regions, Ning said. Most of them have fairly established import/sourcing and sales channels and yield relatively high margins.

The large recyclers in the central and western parts of China are primarily engaged in domestic recycling.

Specifically, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Fujian, Shandong and Hebei provinces are the primary distribution and processing centers of recycled plastics, with different focuses in each region.

Tianjin, Hebei and Shandong focus on higher-end low density polyethylene film and high density PE materials. Zhejiang, Shanghai, and Jiangsu demand clean PET, HDPE, polypropylene and some engineering plastics. Fujian has a large appetite for lower end LDPE film. Guangdong consumes large quantities of engineering plastics and some PE, PP and PET waste.

China’s plastic recycling rate has been on a steady upward trend in the past five years, reaching 30 percent in 2013.

The large number of small- and micro-sized recyclers have highly specialized focus of materials, efficient logistics network, and strong competitive edges. But their total lack of environmental protection measures have been on the radar of the government. Ning noted future policies will require recyclers to have environmental treatment and likely give more incentives to larger companies, leaving squeezed space for smaller recyclers.

Some small recyclers will be forced to shut down, and others will move to large recycling industrial parks.

All things considered, Ning said, China needs better regulated and larger recyclers.