WASHINGTON - Six years ago, massive mainland China accepted no more used plastics from the United States than the tiny island nation of New Zealand - about 783,000 pounds. But blessed with a huge population willing to clean scrap plastics by hand and archaic machines wheezing profiles and parts by the million, the Chinese plastic recycling juggernaut has experienced phenomenal growth. In the first 11 months of 1995, China imported more than 25.6 million pounds of everything from waste styrenics, PVC, polyethyelene and ``miscellaneous'' plastics from American sellers.
American exports to New Zealand in the same period dwindled to just over 10,000 pounds.
The Chemical/Pharmaceutical Division of the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration figures the United States exported about 654 million pounds of used polymers in the first 11 months of 1995 to markets around the world.
The department estimates these plasticsare valued, minus shipping charges, at $207 million, or about 31.5 cents per pound.
Told of that rate, R.W. Beck and Associates analyst Charles Mc-Lendon said, ``During 1995, the export market was strong for PET in the first and second quarter. There were some pretty expensive bales going off the West Coast. Were you to do that analysis now, you would find the results to be probably lower.''
McLendon, with Beck's Envi-ronmental Services Group in Orlando, Fla., believes the Commerce Department figures do not reflect the actual amount of post-consumer plastics actually sent overseas.
For example, of the 555 million pounds of waste plastics the Commerce Department records as sent overseas in 1994, only about 162 million pounds could be traced to post-consumer sources, Beck's figures show.
The same is true for 1992 and 1993. In 1992, Beck computed 100 million pounds of post-consumer waste, while the Commerce De-partment showed 405 million pounds of waste. In 1993, the Beck figure was 137.3 million pounds of post-consumer material, while the Commerce Depar-tment shows 348 million pounds of waste.
The single-largest buyer of the United States' waste plastic is Hong Kong, which received about 321 million pounds of American waste plastic, with a value at its point of shipping of $97.5 million, in the first 11 months of 1995.
Several scrap plastics brokers interviewed for this story are convinced much of that sent to Hong Kong ends up on the Chinese mainland for both internal use and value-added export, although the federal figures do not reflect that.
Onetime big consumers of American waste plastics have dramatically cut back on their buying.
In particular, buyers for the Indonesian market bought 31.3 million pounds of waste plastics from the United States in 1990, valued at $4.3 million. By November 1995, that had dropped to 2.9 million pounds valued at $400,000. Reasons given by analysts vary, but they cite Indonesian authorities' clampdown on imports of very low-quality plastic as being involved in the drop.
The Commerce Department divides the statistics on ``waste, parings and scrap'' of plastics into four categories for reporting purposes: polyethylene, styrenics, PVC and ``other,'' or nonspecified, resins.
Vincent J. Kamenicky, senior chemical advisor in the chemical/pharmaceutical division, said no distinction is made in the statistics between actual ``recycled'' resins and ``near-prime'' or ``off-spec'' grades of resin, which in some parts of the plastics industry are considered waste plastics. Nor do they clearly state whether the product is in flake, pellet or baled form.
``Some of this is bought on contract, some on the spot market. Exchange rates between the United States and other countries could be a factor as well. There are just too many variables to make assumptions'' about what factors may play most significantly in the determination of the waste plastics' value, Kamenicky said.
By far the largest single category of waste plastics is ``miscellaneous,'' the vagueness of which helps waste plastics buyers avoid paying higher tariffs slapped by many countries on higher-valued scrap resins.
The Commerce Department figures show 442.5 million pounds of ``not otherwise specified'' waste plastics were sold to international buyers from January to Novem-ber 1995.
Edgar Miller, coordinator of the Recycling Advisory Council of the National Recycling Coalition in Arlington, Va., said, ``Certainly, recycling is a global market.''
But he wonders, ``Once [manufacturers in foreign countries] get their resin production on line, will they need American recyclables?''