Expect big, but not lasting, changes from China's new National Sword

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The idea behind China's National Sword policy is good. But I'm skeptical about the country's ability — or at least its will — to permanently clean up the problems with its plastics recycling sector.

National Sword is the colorful name of China's new crackdown on plastics waste imports and pollution problems at recyclers. China's General Administration of Customs rolled out the policy in early February.

National Sword includes heightened restrictions on what kinds of scrap plastics can be imported into China and arrests of recyclers that aren't using proper pollution controls. There are provisions that don't involve plastics too, including drugs and guns. But a big target is plastic packaging and e-waste — items like old appliances, computers, business equipment and electronics that contain a lot of plastics.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. In February 2013, China implemented a policy called Green Fence that did exactly the same things.

I admit, the impact of Green Fence was huge. We started to hear about it early on from our reporters in China. A few months after our initial reports, the rest of the world started to panic.

The loudest howls came from the people in charge of recycling programs in North America and Europe. They had gotten used to selling mixed bales of waste to China and getting paid for the privilege. Suddenly the worst of the bales, filled with plastic bottles, paper, film and rigids, were worthless. China wasn't allowing imports that consisted mostly of trash.

Many communities learned to clean up their act. They stopped collecting waste that recyclers didn't want, and they made a greater effort to educate the public about what types of waste — especially plastic — had real value. And they started to do a better job sorting everything that was collected because, in the recycling sector, sorting adds value.

The result was more clean bales that recyclers demanded. That benefited recyclers, both in China and elsewhere. North American recyclers considered it a favor, since they had a break from competing for raw materials from buyers in China.

Meanwhile, some recyclers in China became more professional, polluting less and following regulations.

But Green Fence lasted only three years. In its third and final phase, called Goddess of the Earth, the operation consisted mostly of checking product bound for Chinese recyclers at the point of import and the point of origin. By then, the impact was over.

We predicted at the time that the crackdown would eventually ease. One Chinese executive told us in November 2013 that Chinese government controls always follow a pattern, easing at times and tightening at others.

"If you control everything always, then everybody cannot do business, so customs will give us a break after several months," he said.

After three years of Green Fence, China's plastics recycling sector still had plenty of businesses like the ones featured in the documentary film "Plastic China," which our correspondent Rebecca Kanthor wrote about in our March 6 issue. Companies where neighbors complain of the stench, and the community can no longer drink contaminated well water. Where children roam and play on mountains of trash instead of going to school, and workers do the hard and dirty work of sorting plastic by hand.

For now, Chinese officials are generating headlines for National Sword, just as they did for Green Fence in 2013. They talk about the policy becoming a "new normal" for China. But the bottom line is we expect the policy to last about a year, to make a big but temporary impact on the global plastics recycling sector, but then to quietly disappear.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "The Plastics Blog." Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.