China's recycling crackdown gets high profile; impact still unclear

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Jim Johnson Wong

New Orleans — National Sword 2017, the name for China’s latest effort to crackdown on problem imports of recycled plastics, won’t be an issue for those who play by the rules, says one recycler close to the action.

Steve Wong is both founder of plastics recycler Fukutomi Co. Ltd. of Hong Kong and executive president of the China Scrap Plastics Association.

He told an audience at the Plastics Recycling 2017 conference in New Orleans that the new initiative is being given a high profile in China, with extensive news coverage of recyclers who are being impacted. He’s said there have been arrests, factories shut down and shipments deemed unacceptable and returned.

“The government is very committed to improving the environmental condition in China,” he said during a presentation focusing on the current market conditions in China.

Companies gaining attention from the Chinese government include those who use third-party licenses to import material without having a license of their own. Those that import material without processing it themselves, which is illegal in China, also are being targeted for enforcement action, Wong said.

“The government is very determined to do whatever they can to regulate the industry,” he said.

But those firms handling recycled plastics imports the right way, including showing they have the right equipment and processes to properly handle the material they are bringing into the country, will continue to be able to stay in operation.

“In order to survive in our business, you have to really take care of the environmental protection and focus on the government’s policy,” he said.

National Sword is taking place at nine ports currently where incoming loads are being inspected, but Wong expects that number to grow. The program is expected to last a year.

Recycled plastics are not the only target of National Sword, as the government is conducting a wider spread anti-smuggling campaign that includes targeting guns and drugs as well as “foreign waste” that includes electronic scrap and household waste.

Those exporting into China will continue to be able to do business with the country if they are taking care with processing.

“Demand for good quality is always in our industry. If you want to survive in a good way, you need to have very, very good quality,” he told the crowd.

Steve Alexander is executive director of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. He was at the conference doing what he does, meeting with association members, moderating a panel and talking recycling.

National Sword is relatively new, and he said he has not heard much from his APR membership about the issue so far.

“I think it remains to be seen how it’s going to impact our market. The last time [with Green Fence], we had a lot of material stay on these shores, which actually led to a lot of innovation on how on we can handle these types of materials. Given where we’ve been with the economy, the price of oil and the market demand, these all seem to be rising, it might, in fact, be a good time for us because there might be more material available for our processors to meet the ever-increasing demand for the material,” Alexander said.

“But it still remains to be seen,” he said.

China, historically, has had a low barrier to entry into the plastics recycling business, and this led to the creation of many companies over the years, Wong said. This created overcapacity and tough competition in the sector.

Jason Wang as vice chairman and secretary general of the CSPA has seen the impact of overcapacity.

“At the moment, of the most challenging is overcapacity for the market. We need to pay attention to make sure that goods are properly recycled and that you also care about the quality in terms of selling the material,” Wang said in a translation provided by Wong.