China starts new crackdown on plastics scrap imports

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Updated — The Chinese government plans to launch a new crackdown on imports of plastics scrap as part of a larger campaign against illegal smuggling of “foreign waste” and other products, according to recycling trade associations and Chinese media.

The effort is broad-based and will be a year-long effort aimed at many types of smuggling, including drugs and guns.

But it also specifically targets imports of plastics scrap for recycling, and could include tighter customs controls nationwide and restrictions on imported waste plastics coming into China through smaller ports, according to a Feb. 14 statement from the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington.

China’s Xinhua news agency said the General Administration of Customs announced the campaign Feb. 7 and that it would target “industrial waste, electronic scrap and plastics” as well as “gangs and well-organized operations acting illegally.”

It’s not clear how the new campaign, called “National Sword 2017,” will compare in scope to the 2013 Green Fence program.

That 2013 campaign was launched very suddenly and drew worldwide headlines initially when imports of scrap plastics ground to a halt amid what some said was hyper-detailed enforcement. Eventually things settled down, but not before the tighter enforcement dropped imports by more than 10 percent for the year.

Chinese officials said at the time they wanted to clean up pollution from poorly run recycling factories or those that were skirting rules, and they wanted to increase the quality of recycled materials to help local manufacturers upgrade.

A leader of a Chinese recycling industry association said there is “less panic” in the industry over the new crackdown than during Green Fence, because companies are more disciplined now and many recyclers without proper permits or facilities have closed down.

Steve Wong, the executive vice president of the Beijing-based China Scrap Plastics Association, said as well that other countries are exporting less plastic waste to China. They are processing more recycled materials in their home countries and diverting more to Southeast Asia for processing, he said.

Still, the new campaign will in general slow down imports and raise costs, and some companies may have already cancelled deals, said Wong, who is managing director of Hong Kong-based plastics recycler Fukutomi Co. Ltd.

“According to market intelligence, the focus of plastic waste items for crackdown this time include E-waste, household waste, agricultural films and tubes, bottles, etc.,” Wong said in a statement. “Although the kick-off may happen anytime now, one or two coastal ports are still ‘open’ for importing.”

ISRI suggested that implementation of the new order remains unclear.

“As the situation is evolving and we continue to reach out for more detailed information, we urge ISRI members to keep us informed of any challenges,” the association said. “Although information available specifically focuses on plastic and metals, there is no indication that shipments of other materials will not also be given higher scrutiny.”

The Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling, a federation of 36 national recycling associations, says National Sword is aimed at strengthening cooperation between government agencies and industry.

“The ‘foreign waste’ of concern to the [Chinese] authorities includes the illegal activities of smuggling solid wastes such as industrial waste, electronic waste, household waste and plastic waste,” BIR said in a Feb. 9 statement.

BIR said agricultural products, resource products, tax-related goods, drugs and guns are included in the new campaign.

Before National Sword, BIR said it met late last year with several Chinese government agencies “supporting the even-handed implementation and enforcement of laws.”

ISRI said the campaign includes provisions designed to encourage the use of specialized industrial parks for waste metals and waste plastics in China, as well as implementing waste management systems. It also includes tougher anti-corruption actions against customs officials and higher penalties for smugglers, ISRI said.

ISRI said China’s government may also consider working with exporting countries to allow its Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine to directly inspect China-bound wastes and be more vigilant in reviewing AQSIQ certificates.