As Chinese consumers buy more plastics products, the amount of plastics waste they generate is growing rapidly. Recyclers in China expect the trend to create a serious disposal problem - and a grand business opportunity.
China discards 4 million refrigerators, 5 million washing machines, 5 million television sets, and 10 million mobile phone handsets each year, according to Liu Jinke, senior engineer at the China Plastics Processing Information Center. He expects those numbers to rise dramatically in coming years, and other household appliances and office equipment will be added to the pile, he said.
``China is in a unique position,'' said Liu, who spoke at the China International Recycling Conference, held May 31 to June 1 in Tianjin.
``It is the world's largest producer of electrical and electronic goods, as well as one of the largest consumers. What's more, it is also the largest importer of [electrical/electronics] scrap.''
China already is the top destination for much of the developed world's plastics waste. According to the Plastics Recycling Committee of China, the country imported more than 12.9 billion pounds of plastics waste last year. Comprising mostly polyethylene and PVC, that volume is up 18 percent from 2005 and has almost tripled since 2000.
Despite more imports, a concern shared by many of the conference's speakers was the amount of plastics waste that goes untreated. A growing pile of waste looms in China's own backyard. Experts believe 17 billion to 22 billion pounds of plastics waste is available for recycling in China every year.
Tan Yiwu, vice president of the Plastics Recycling Committee of the China Plastics Processing Industry Association in Beijing, estimates that less than half of the locally generated plastics waste (around 4.4 billion pounds) finds its way to recycling centers each year. And that volume is likely to grow as quickly as China's plastics per capita consumption, which is now estimated at just 48 pounds per year, or one-seventh of U.S. consumption.
Both Liu and Tan also spoke out against environmental pollution that results from poor business practices. Once the precious metals and plastics parts are dismantled, unwanted waste is simply buried in landfills or incinerated, releasing hazardous byproducts into the air or water supply, they said.
About 40,000-60,000 companies are engaged in recycling in China, employing 10 million people. But more than 90 percent of those firms are small workshops that use minimal if any equipment and mainly collect household waste. Less than 2 percent of them have annual sales of more than 5 million yuan (US$650,000).
Recyclers are largely unregulated in China, and the industry is characterized by an absence of quality standards, protection against price-fixing or environmental controls.
Most small enterprises give little regard to the environment, especially when their financial livelihood is at stake. This is especially true where poorer business owners are neither educated nor equipped to handle industrial waste, Tan said.
Indiscriminate disposal of waste already has taken its toll on China's environment, and the government has reacted to the problem only recently. A directive was issued in March covering the production and disposal of electronics waste. However, it failed to address the actual processes of collection, handling and recycling, because much of the electronics waste is imported illegally.
Liu thinks government action is too little and too late. However, others believe the environmental crisis has been exaggerated.
Zhou Kaiqing, vice president of the Recycling Resources Technology Services Committee under CRRA, said it is nearly impossible to find a Coke bottle or electrical appliance along China's streets. The reason, said Zhou, is that Chinese processors widely use recycled plastic to supplement virgin resins.
Speakers at the conference recommend the adoption of recycling standards simliar to those initiated by Japan or the European Union. One example cited was that Germans collected more than 11 billion pounds of post-consumer plastics packaging materials in 2000, an average of 143 pounds per person - which is three times higher than China's per capita consumption.
Liu and Tan envision recycling as a means to protect the environment and to conserve resources that ultimately support the industry's sustainability.
The labor-intensive plastics industry also can help China solve the problem of low employment in its rural regions, Tan said.
The conference was organized by the China National Resources Recycling Association of Beijing.