KUNMING, CHINA — China's plastics pipe trade association wants the industry to clean up its act and stop using recycled materials and the neurotoxin lead to manufacture drinking water pipe.
Following government scrutiny and a high-profile media report, the Beijing-based China Plastics Piping Association on April 1 launched a code for self-regulation for its members, which includes explicit bans on using recycled plastics in drinking water pipe or engaging in bribery to get contracts.
The plan, unveiled at the group's annual conference, comes after a January expose by China's state-run broadcaster CCTV that showed pipe makers in Jiangsu province using recycled material to make substandard drinking water pipe.
Recent local government investigations have also targeted plastic pipe, the Shanghai-based China Urban Water Association told the conference.
For example, a July 2013 examination by water regulators in Anhui province found that 10 of 42 companies were making drinking water polyethylene pipe that did not meet standards. A review of plastic pipe companies by government officials in Zhejiang province in March found that only 10 percent were meeting standards, the water association said.
Last year also marked the first time that health departments in China began inspecting plastic pipe manufacturers, CPPA said, an indication of rising concern about public health and water pollution. Inspectors have visited more than 150 pipe factories, CPPA said.
It all added up to environmental issues and industry self-regulation being a prominent theme at CPPA's annual conference, held April 1-3 in Kunming.
Wang Zhan Jie, CPPA general secretary, criticized the improper use of recycled materials, done as a way to cut costs, and said the situation has been a black eye for the entire industry.
“Because some illegal material has been exposed, this left a very bad impression in the public about plastic pipe,” he told the conference. “People think plastic pipe is harmful.”
Some CPPA members claimed that the problem of improper materials is more common among smaller companies, and argued that larger companies were more responsible in their material use.
CPPA said its new self-regulation scheme would include promotion efforts to bolster the image of plastic pipe.
Wang said the self-regulation code will include enforcement. He said CPPA will investigate complaints against companies and give warnings, or if needed, kick out those firms that do not comply.
While the industry is placing a lot of emphasis on the voluntary code, the approach has some limits, such as not covering companies outside the CPPA.
Only about 400 of the estimated 6,000-10,000 plastic pipe manufacturers nationally belong to CPPA, it said. But CPPA said those 400 companies account for 70 percent of China's total pipe production.
Wang said companies that are not CPPA members could sign the self-regulation code.
There were also calls in speeches for more government regulation, although Wang gave no indication of any signs that the Chinese government is planning a big crackdown as it did last year against the plastic recycling industry, an operation that became known as Green Fence.
Zheng Xiaoming, a director at the China Urban Water Association, told Plastics News after his speech that there should be stronger mechanisms for closing down companies that improperly use recycled materials in drinking water pipes.
He said he believes the problems could be solved, and said the attention and public discussion was helpful.
There were other materials-related problems discussed at the conference.
Qian Guijing, president of the Beijing-based China Plastics Processing Industry Association, said the industry needs more “self-discipline” in manufacturing, and urged companies to also not use lead as a stabilizer in PVC pipes.
CPPA is working with companies to phase out lead in all PVC pipe applications, and hopes to have all CPPA members agree to switch to calcium or other stabilizers by the end of 2015, Wang said.
Others at the conference, however, noted that both recycled materials and lead are cheaper than virgin materials or other stabilizers.
As long as the industry faces severe overcapacity — China's plastic pipe production capacity of 25 million metric tons is twice current demand — industry officials said economic pressures to cut corners could remain strong.
Some participants, including the head of the Yunnan Provincial Plastic Industry Association, noted in speeches that bribery to get contracts is another risk factor that can lead to poor quality pipe being used. CPPA felt strongly enough about unethical practices to devote part of its one-page code to it.
“We should not use improper or illegal behaviors such as bribery to participate in market competition,” the CPPA code said.
One industry executive said that China's pipe industry has developed so quickly in recent years that it's raced ahead of the government's ability to monitor it.
But now that the country's growth rate is slowing, the authorities will catch up and over time problems like the use of recycled materials will decline as the industry matures, said Jiang Jia Cheng, chief executive of Wealpro Pipeline Industry Group Co. Ltd. in Yingkou, Liaoning province.