A European recycling organization is calling for limits on plastic scrap exports to China, saying that big increases in plastic waste shipped to Asia hurts Europe's recyclers, and that poor labor and environmental practices give Asian firms advantages over their European competition.
The Brussels-based trade group European Plastics Recyclers said in an Aug. 24 statement that a Chinese government decision to allow, as of Aug. 1, imports of scrap PVC, PET bottles, compact discs, ethylene and styrene, will deteriorate the fragile state of Europe's recycling industry.
EuPR calls for the European collection systems to act in a sustainable way by reducing the export of plastics waste to the Far East and by supporting their local treatment, the group said.
But a Chinese recycling industry leader said China is making serious efforts to clean up including a crackdown on illegal recyclers.
Chinese regulators are enforcing much tougher permitting rules for plastic recyclers. That, along with the global economic downturn, has shut down about 30 percent of the country's recyclers since the economic crisis began in 2008, said Toland Lam, president of the Plastic Recycling Committee of the Beijing-based China Plastics Processing Industry Association.
Lam, who also is chairman of Meixin Manufacturing Co. Ltd. in Huizhou, said he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the CPPIA recycling committee.
Most of the recyclers closing are smaller facilities without the money to upgrade, he said. Lam also said legal recyclers in China that want to import plastic waste from Europe already must pass European inspections.
EuPR, which says it represents about 80 percent of European recycling capacity, said exports of waste plastic from Europe rose 250 percent between 2000 and 2008, to 2.27 million metric tons. The group added that those exports don't seem to be slowing in the economic downturn, rising 33 percent in the first quarter of 2009.
EuPR said 87 percent of European plastic waste is exported to mainland China and Hong Kong, and suggested that collection systems paid for by European taxpayers are effectively subsidizing Asian recyclers.
There is a huge tax flow from Europe to the Far East, the group said. This huge amount of money could be used to increase the [European] collection systems' efficiency, permitting better recycling rates at a lower cost and with lower environmental impact.
About 5 million metric tons of plastic are recycled annually in Europe.
EuPR also cited concerns over Asian labor conditions: From an ethical point of view, Europeans cannot tolerate that their waste is treated by companies that do not [comply] with European social standards, working security and, in the worst cases, child labor.
EuPR added that recycling European waste in Asia results in more greenhouse gas emissions than if the materials were recycled in Europe.
The group cited a study from Wellman International Ltd. that claims recycling 300,000 metric tons of PET bottles into fiber in Europe would save 175,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, compared with recycling them in China, because of transport costs and an inefficient energy mix in China.
EuPR did not detail what actions it would like to see, but spokesman Antonino Furfari said that a political commitment is needed to limit the exports of waste, along with a greater commitment to eco-design and a change in thinking of waste as a resource.
Lam said Chinese authorities have enforced tighter rules and pushed tougher standards, even amid concerns about adding to job losses in the economic downturn.
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