A Chinese plastics recycling trade association wants to set up a voluntary eco-certification program for recycled plastics, hoping to get its industry into more-lucrative end markets and counter the sometimes troubled public image of recycling in the country.
The program, being drawn up by the China Plastic Processing Industry Association's recycling division, would set standards in recycled plastic for potential toxins like heavy metals, plasticizers, some flame retardants and vinyl chloride monomer. It would use a third-party auditing firm to certify compliance.
Industry officials see it as a way, over the long term, to boost the low profitability of China's recycling sector, improve confidence in its recycled materials among large international brand owners, and promote the carbon-emission-reduction benefits of recovered plastics.
We mostly use low cost to be competitive, rather than promote the environmental friendliness of recycled plastics, said Tony Tan, a member of the CPPIA plastics recycling committee, describing why the group wants to pursue the certification. Tan also is deputy general manager of Guangdong Jofo Enterprises Co. Ltd., a Guangzhou-based recycler and chemical fiber manufacturer.
Officials unveiled plans for the standard at the annual China Plastics Exhibition & Conference, or Replas, held Nov. 4-5 in Ningbo.
CPPIA hopes to finish the standard by March or April, and is using international testing firm Intertek to help design the program and conduct the certifications, said Toland Lam, president of the CPPIA recycling committee and president of recycler T&T Hi-Tech Development Co. Ltd. in Shenzhen.
While details are still being discussed, the standard is likely to have three levels of progressively demanding standards and include components for social responsibility compliance and carbon-footprint measurement at higher levels, according to Heidi Lv, a certification executive in the Shanghai office of London-based Intertek. Lv spoke at the conference.
There is demand for higher-quality materials and higher standards among some international firms like Adidas AG, which wants to use recycled fibers, and companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with its environmental rating systems for suppliers, Lv said.
The need to upgrade China's recycling systems was a theme among other speakers at the conference.
CPPIA recycling committee member Sun Ziqiang, general manager of Shanghai-based recycler Asei Group, said recyclers in China suffer a bad public image because they are seen as part of the garbage-collection industry, rather than being seen as helping to conserve natural resources.
Sun said recyclers need to work with governments in China to build better systems to collect recyclable materials, such as those in Europe, North America and Japan.
Without this recycling system, this industry will continue to be blamed by the media and the public for pollution from recycling operations, said Sun.
Right now, much of China's domestic recycling is not done through government systems as in many developed countries, but instead is collected on the street and in homes by people buying materials. That system is limited in how much it can effectively collect, Sun said.
As a result, China imports about 15.4 billion pounds of plastic scrap a year, while its domestic systems collect somewhere around 20 billion pounds a year.
We import scrap plastics because there is an effective system [of collection] in foreign countries, Sun said.
Sun said it is difficult to get solid numbers on recycling in China, but figures from China's customs department presented at the conference showed imports of scrap plastic are on target to rise about 6 percent in 2010, to about 16.3 billion pounds.
While most of the leaders pushing for the reforms in China's recycling system are from larger companies, the country's fragmented recycling industry includes many smaller firms that the larger companies believe often ignore environmental laws and are not well-regulated by the government.
A new eco-certification standard would not be a threshold for operating in the recycling industry but it could strengthen firms in the marketplace that follow environmental laws, Tan told the conference. That point was echoed by other CPPIA recycling committee members.
Of course we wish to use the accreditation to eliminate those irresponsible companies in the industry, Tan said.
He also said that China's recycling industry lacks enough data to fully tell government officials about the benefits of plastics recycling, such as the amount of carbon emissions and energy that can be saved from recycling rather than using virgin plastic.
One analysis presented at the conference by a professor from Shanghai University estimated that plastic recycling in China saves carbon emissions equal to 27 coal-fired power plants.
Tan said plastic recycling industries in the United States, Europe and Japan have well-established systems to collect reliable data on how much is recycled and the end uses and potential benefits of the material.
We lack the data to properly communicate with the government, Tan said.