The recovered paper industry is adapting as China's "Green Fence" initiative causes some exporters to second-guess their shipments.
Prompted by extremely poor quality scrap imports, China's central government initiated stricter enforcement of existing quality requirements, with an inspection crackdown expected to last through October or November.
As Chinese customs report a 5.5 percent decrease in scrap plastic imports from January to April, trade of recovered paper, of which the solid waste industry is a major producer, is also seeing fallout.
"It's absolutely impacted us much more on the fiber side than the plastics side. It may have been originally kind of targeted for plastics, but boy it has really impacted fiber," said James Fish, Waste Management Inc.'s chief financial officer, during the recent Wunderlich Securities Inc. Investor Summit at Waste Expo in New Orleans.
Of the three top paper grades — old corrugated containers, mixed paper and old newspapers — mixed paper and ONP were hardest hit, said William Caesar, president of WM Recycle America, at the summit. Though shipments of OCC are still seeing an inspection rate as high as 50 percent, that grade doesn't have the quality problems of other grades.
Both mixed paper and ONP grades have experienced a slow slide in quality over the years. Inspectors are searching shipments for non-paper contaminants and moisture; the presence of either could cause a shipment to be rejected.
William Moore, president of international consulting firm Moore & Associates, said the quality of mixed paper, typically coming from residential collection services, has similarly declined.
"Mixed paper had really sunk to a level where it doesn't even come close to the [Pre-shipment Inspection] guidelines on the non-paper content," Moore said. "And if there's an upside to Green Fence, and I think there is, it kind of put a floor on quality, which had been slipping for 15 years."