China's plastics recycling industry could see solid growth from the steady increases in both domestic and overseas supplies, but it must adopt better technology and address society's environmental concerns about pollution, according to the head of one of the industry's major trade groups.
Toland Lam, president of the Plastic Recycling Committee of the China Plastics Processing Industry Association, told an industry conference that companies have the raw material supply for sustained growth: China's domestic collection of recycled plastic rose 10 percent in 2008, to more than 20 billion pounds, and imports of plastic scrap more than tripled between 2002 and 2008, to just over 15 billion pounds.
But in a blunt speech at the China Replas 2009 conference, Lam warned that the industry needs to adopt higher standards, boost spending on research and use better equipment in line with more developed economies like Japan and the United States.
And, importantly, he said the industry needs to find a way to change Chinese public opinion, which considers recycling companies the same as garbage collectors, and emphasize how recycling can help the environment and the Chinese economy.
Lam said unaddressed problems, like some companies recycling plastic without proper environmental controls, have slowed the industry's development and contributed to what he said is a lack of respect for plastics recycling in some of the country's government decisions.
For example, Lam said, China imposes tariffs of 6.5 percent on imports of plastic waste, but it does not tax imports of waste paper, copper and other materials.
He said the media sometimes portrays Chinese plastics recycling negatively, but the problems with imports of waste that have been highlighted are a very tiny part of overall imports.
He said recyclers should emphasize how the industry helps the local economy by compensating for shortages of raw materials in China.
Professor Qian Guangren of the School of Environmental Chemical Engineering at Shanghai University told the conference that recyclers also need to talk more about greenhouse-gas emissions that can be reduced by using recycled materials.
If China, currently the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the United States, does not reduce emissions, it could face penalizing tariffs from other countries, Qian said. He said China has one of the lowest per-capita emissions rates among major economies, but the size of its economy makes it overall a large emitter.
There was some evidence that China's plastics recycling industry is slowly coming back from its near collapse in late 2008, after the U.S. economic crisis became a global downturn.
Figures presented by Chinese customs officials indicated that imports of scrap plastic in 2009 are on pace to be about the same level as 2008, with 12 billion pounds being imported through the end of September. China recycles about 20 percent of its plastic waste, according to figures from the conference in Hangzhou.
Recycling companies said their business was improving, but still difficult.
You've been to the bottom, so nothing can be worse, said Karen Zhou, director of Hebei Hua Ao Waste Processing Co. Ltd. in Beijing. We are gradually picking up.
But Zhou whose company buys ABS, polyethylene and other scrap materials from America and Europe, reprocesses it and sells its resins to Chinese firms making auto parts, bags and other products said the market remains tough to predict, and is much more price sensitive.
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