China's plastics industry, like many others, is increasing its investments in green materials and technologies, but most of the money thus far is targeting export markets, with China's domestic consumers slow to register.
At least that was the view from the Eco Expo Asia trade show, held Oct. 28-31 in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong-based injection molder and recycler Fukutomi Co. Ltd., for example, said most of the orders for its corn-based polylactic acid packaging come from European, North American and Japanese customers.
Chinese customers sometimes call to inquire, but as soon as they hear that the green material costs double or triple that of oil-based plastics, they quickly lose interest, said commercial director Mary Cheung.
Environmental protection always costs money, she said.
Still, the firm said demand for its exported PLA products has doubled this year, and it's making investments in new PLA molding capacity at its Shantou, China, factory. Fukutomi sees that market as a significant part of its future, even if it is in other countries.
Similarly, Hong Kong-based PET recycler Forleda Eco-Services Co. Ltd. said that most of the market for the recycled PET bags, clothing and other products under its GPET brand are aimed at customers in Europe and North America.
In Asia, they are quite concerned about the price, not what the material is and whether it is recycled, said Kin Lee, marketing manager. In the U.S. and Europe, the market is different.
Still, he said, there are some signs of rising demand locally.
In Hong Kong, demand for Forleda's reusable, recycled PET shopping bags has risen 50 percent since that small, self-governing region of 7 million people in China imposed taxes on plastic bags at grocery stores.
But in the larger mainland China market, which started its own plastic bag restrictions last year, demand has not increased.
Mainland consumers, he said, don't have as much money and that has proved to be a hurdle for Forleda bags, which are at least 30 percent more expensive than other reusable shopping bags made from virgin polypropylene or other materials.
In mainland China, it is not the right moment, Lee said. Their green sense is not that high. It may take four or five years.
There also is less regulation on environmental claims in Hong Kong and China than there is in Europe or the United States, and that leads to more misleading claims, according to Kammei Thomson, director of Biobag Australasia Pty. Ltd. in Sydney, which makes garbage bags and compost bags from cornstarch material.
She said one large Hong Kong supermarket chain has been using PE bags with additives that break apart the bag and claiming that the bag is biodegradable.
That claim would not meet with government scrutiny in some European countries or U.S. cities, she said, because PE is not compostable. But in China, there's little regulation of such statements, Thomson said
She said Biobag's products are fully compostable in line with the EN 13432 European standard.
While there are major price hurdles in China's green plastics market, some of the companies said they are making investments in anticipation of future developments.
Fukutomi's Cheung said the firm is seriously considering buying equipment to make recycled PET pellets to food-grade standards of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, initially to export. But, it expects demand for such material to increase in China.
Similarly, Beijing and Shanghai have started pilot projects to compost food waste in 20,000 households. That could help seed the market for compostable plastic bags, according to Wilson Tse, marketing director for cornstarch-based resin maker PSM (HK) Co. Ltd. of Wuhan, China.
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