The Chinese government is apparently edging closer to ending a ban on direct imports of whole PET scrap bottles.
The move is being watched in recycling circles around the world, because it may mean more recycled PET exports will go to China and potentially less recycled PET will be available elsewhere.
An official with China's Ministry of Environmental Protection said at a plastics conference in Hangzhou Nov. 6 that the government is moving ahead with plans to draft detailed regulations ending the ban and allowing direct imports of at least some whole scrap bottles under a licensing system.
Details remain unclear, and experts cautioned that uneven enforcement of current rules makes it tricky to predict the real-world impact of any legal change.
But given China's voracious appetite for recycled materials it now buys more than half the PET bottles collected in the United States the issue is being watched closely, according to American and Chinese recycling industry officials attending China Replas 2009, held Nov. 5-7 in Hangzhou. The event was organized by the Plastics Recycling Committee of the Beijing-based China Plastics Processing Industry Association.
Currently, waste PET bottles must be shredded or flaked to be allowed into China legally, and removing that requirement could make it cheaper for China to bring in bottles and increase imports, or mean that the U.S. PET recyclers could have to pay more for material, said Patricia Moore, executive director of the Plastic Recycling Corp. of California in Sonoma, Calif.
The concern in the U.S. is that if they can do this [import whole bottles], it will take costs out of the system so the Chinese can pay more, she said in a Nov. 7 interview at the conference.
It also could further tighten supplies in the United States at a time when Coca-Cola Co. and other big companies are investing in PET recycling capacity in North America.
Kathy Xuan, president of North Aurora, Ill.-based recycler Parc Corp., agreed the changes could lead to more PET imported to China. Parc also has operations in China.
But there are other complications that could make it tough to gauge the real-world impact.
Some whole scrap bottles do get imported to China now, in violation of current regulations. They often initially enter through the port of Hong Kong, where they are legal to import, and then are divided into smaller loads and brought into mainland China through the country's somewhat porous port system, some conference attendees said.
It's not known how many loads of whole bottles enter indirectly now, and how many more could come in, but some attendees described as a open secret that ports in South China are looser than elsewhere in China.
It's a point the Chinese authorities seemed to acknowledge, when they said at the conference that they would crack down on waste plastic coming into ports in Guangdong province, which neighbors Hong Kong.
Ports in Guangdong that don't have proper conditions for inspecting waste plastic will not be allowed to import the materials, an official with China's General Administration of Customs told conference attendees.
The government is sometimes suspicious of plastic waste that enters one port in Guangdong, while the cargo's shipping paperwork says it is bound for a factory much closer to another port and the material could have gone through the nearer port, the customs official said.
In Guangdong province, [the crackdown] will have a big impact, the official said.
The MEP official said Beijing still is in the process of drafting rules on importing whole PET bottles, and for now, the government is not accepting applications from companies to get a license to do that. The government also is preparing rules to allow the import of more compact disc scrap, according to the MEP official.
Beijing is balancing several competing goals with its recycling policies.
It wants to allow imports of recyclable materials to meet China's appetite for raw materials, but it also wants to protect workers and the domestic Chinese environment, according to an official with China's National Center of Solid Waste Management.
In September, for example, three workers at a Zhejiang recycling plant died after working with a chemically contaminated load of plastic packaging scrap.
The material in that case may have come from domestic sources, and officials at the conference said they are concerned about local supplies.
Moore suggested the changes could have a positive impact on the U.S. market, if they allow more direct communication between sellers of plastic scrap in America and buyers in China.
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