The Chinese government has issued long-awaited rules detailing how companies can import whole PET scrap bottles.
The rules, issued in October and discussed by government officials and companies at a Nov. 4 conference in Ningbo, have been closely watched globally, as China is the world's largest importer of scrap plastics.
China had previously allowed only imports of recycled PET that already had been ground or processed in some way, because government officials said they were concerned about the country in effect importing materials that were not clean and that polluted the country.
But with China's huge demands for new sources of raw materials, particularly in its polyester fiber manufacturing industry, officials had said last year they planned to relax the rules.
The new rules place some limits on who can bring in the material: They require that importers have existing facilities and a current license to import recycled plastic, that they be located in a district designated for recycling, and that they have imported at least 22 million pounds of material in each of the last three years.
For companies outside those existing recycling districts, they must have imported at least 66 million pounds of materials in each of the last three years. Licenses will be given by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection.
The issue has been closely watched for its potential impact on recycling streams worldwide, and for its potential to increase China's already significant imports of PET. The country, for example, has taken more than half of the recycled PET bottles collected in the United States for each of the last four years.
One recycling industry executive with factories in both the United States and China said she does not think the changes will lead to significantly more recycled PET exports to China, because existing supply chains already are well-established, and it is likely to raise prices for the bottles and lead to more competition among buyers.
Kathy Xuan, president of Romeoville, Ill.-based Parc Corp., said the changes could mean that Hong Kong, a key intermediary point for shipments, might be bypassed in favor of direct imports.
Now, Hong Kong firms will import whole bottles and either reprocess them or in something that is not entirely legal but is an open secret among recyclers in China break them into smaller loads for shipment through the porous ports of the neighboring Guangdong province.
Xuan, who is also a board member of the Plastic Recycling Committee of the China Plastic Processing Industry Association, said the new rules are likely to raise prices for bottles because more suppliers will be competing for them.
The biggest beneficiaries probably will be those in more direct control of bottle collection, such as the materials-recovery facilities in the U.S., Xuan said in an interview at the annual China Plastics Exhibition & Conference, or Replas, held Nov. 4-5 in Ningbo. Replas is sponsored by CPPIA.
Parc also has recycling facilities in Qingdao, China.
Other Chinese recyclers at the conference also feel the new rules will bring more buyers into the market, raise prices at some points in the supply chain and potentially allow end users like polyester fiber manufacturers more direct access to materials.
If those fiber makers can legally import bottles, they may set up their own recycling operations and start buying directly, rather than working through existing recyclers, said a saleswoman for a Hong Kong-based recycling firm with operations in the Guangdong province. She asked to remain anonymous.
Some smaller Chinese recyclers at the conference who process whole PET bottles collected within the country urged government officials to relax the requirements for an import license, saying they had additional capacity and could cleanly process more material.
Chinese recyclers also questioned government officials about the new requirement that only clean bottles be imported, saying that it is not possible, outside of a few sources in Japan, to import bottles that are entirely clean.
A Ministry of Environmental Protection official suggested that language could be adjusted.
The Chinese government also unveiled rules at the conference to set up a licensing system to allow more direct imports of polycarbonate CD scrap.