Dongguan, China — China's scrap plastics recyclers are on edge as Beijing cracks down on smuggling, dodgy dealers and imported bales of even slightly contaminated waste.
The aggressive push is having ripple effects in the United States, the world's biggest exporter of scrap plastics.
Under the National Sword program announced in February, the General Administration of Customs is turning up the heat on a shadowy trade in scrap plastics, including traders who sell or rent out their licenses to import scrap.
Another key factor: Spurred by environmental concerns, government officials, including President Xi Jinping, want to raise China's low rate of domestic plastics recycling.
"This is the most difficult conference in my experience," Wang Wang, secretary general of the China Scrap Plastics Association, told an attentive audience at this month's Replas trade show in Dongguan.
A presentation from CSPA, the show's organizer, captured the anxious mood with the title "Status Quo: Grim Outlook."
The chief concerns of recyclers, according to CSPA: toughened enforcement, an uncertain business outlook, the high cost of machinery to meet new regulations and lack of information along the scrap supply chain.
At the accompanying trade show, recyclers speculated that imports of all post-consumer waste film may soon be banned.
"There is going to be a big earthquake. It's going to change everything," said Shan Xia Qiang of Asei Group, which has plants in China and Japan. He no longer imports white film into China, he said.
Currently, China bans the import of waste agricultural film, said CSPA Executive President Steven C.K. Wong. He also noted that with 260,000 workers, the scrap plastics industry in China is miniscule in a nation of 1.3 billion.
Government officials bluntly told the audience of 100 to follow the rules — or else.
"We need to process domestic plastic scrap instead of imported scrap," said Ju Hongyan from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
The tension was palpable at a Q&A session that concluded the first day's session. "Is there any policy that can help us?" asked a recycler, saying her permit to import scrap via the Guangzhou port was recently canceled.
Even though China is the world's biggest importer of scrap plastics, those imports have declined since peaking in 2011.
U.S. recyclers are worried, too. The Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. put in its first-ever appearance at the show, now in its 17th year. "What happens in China is incredibly important for the scrap processing industry in the U.S. as well," said Joe Pickard, ISRI chief economist and director of commodities.
The trade group is concerned about consistency in applying regulations. "Even scrap that has left U.S. ports is getting held up at Hong Kong and at ports elsewhere in China because they haven't cleared inspections here," Pickard said.
"Two different inspectors can look at the same shipment and come up with two different conclusions," he said.
Wong founded Hong Kong-based Fukutomi Co. Ltd. in 1984, a golden era for the recycling sector. But for the last 10 years, making a profit in the hypercompetitive industry has been increasingly difficult, Wong said.
The company has responded by diversifying its recycling operations to Southeast Asia and investing in high-end equipment from vendors like Erema Engineering Recycling Maschinen und Anlagen GmbH. But industrywide, margins are low, Wong said.
"For the past 10 years, all the money we have been making has not been enough to cover our losses," he said.
China, historically, has had a low barrier to entry into the plastics recycling business, and this led to the creation of many mom-and-pop operations. Beijing is now trying to herd recyclers into industrial parks, where they can be better monitored.
"We started closing factories a few years ago," Wong said. "There are too many people in the business now."
Recently, even the savvy Wong had a shipment blocked at Hong Kong port when inspectors found it was contaminated with bits of metal.
In 2015, 11.8 million tons of scrap plastic valued at $5.7 billion was shipped across borders worldwide, according to ISRI.