A U.S. recycling trade association is raising new concerns about rumors that China may put in place either a ban or severe restrictions on imported recycled materials, with plastics possibly being the first target.
The Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries said at a June 13 news conference that it is taking the rumors "very seriously," and said its information suggested restrictions on plastics could start in early 2018.
ISRI President Robin Wiener said repeatedly that talk of a ban was only a rumor, but one that was circulating widely at the Bureau of International Recycling annual convention in Hong Kong in late May. Wiener and other senior ISRI staff attended that forum.
ISRI said the rumors stem from an April 18 announcement from a high-ranking panel headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for more restrictions on imported recyclables, citing health and environmental concerns. Some Chinese recycling industry officials have also interpreted that announcement as leading to import bans.
After the BIR meeting, the ISRI delegation went to Beijing to meet Chinese government officials to seek more details. They also briefed U.S. Embassy staff on industry concerns, since China is the largest export market for U.S. scrap materials, Wiener said.
"We're taking these rumors very seriously," said Adina Renee Adler, ISRI's senior director of government relations and international affairs. "There's been a lot of chatter but nothing official."
She said they met in Beijing with China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, which oversees inspecting imports and exports.
In meetings with China's government, there was "no comment specific to the rumors of a ban, although maybe body language gave us some indication that there is talk of it," Adler said.
Wiener said it's not clear why plastics have been identified as the first material potentially targeted.
She said it could be because of "bad press within China about the processing of materials within China."
Or it could be partly related to a documentary film, "Plastic China," which received attention at film festivals in North America and Europe, and reportedly was noticed and seen by Chinese government officials, Wiener said.
That film showed the polluted underbelly of China's plastics recycling industry at small processing plants in Shandong province.
She added that China may also be trying to boost its domestic scrap collection industries.
Wiener said the quality of imports did not seem to be the main concern of Chinese officials, who seemed to recognize local industry's needs for quality imported foreign scrap.
"Interestingly, the focus does not seem to be on problem imports," she said. "It seems to be on problems with the processing in country. Again conjecture."
Adler said ISRI's information is that any ban would be phased in over five years, but that plastics would be the first targeted, in January 2018, followed by mixed metals in a year or two and then paper and higher value metals in three to five years.
The writing of new regulations would be led by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, but ISRI was not able to secure a meeting with that agency, Wiener said.
A more formal announcement could come in July, ISRI said.
ISRI said discussions of a ban seem separate from the so-called National Sword campaign against smuggling and poor-quality recycling imports that China's government launched in February. ISRI initially set up the China trip to learn about National Sword.
ISRI sees National Sword as similar to China's 2013 Green Fence campaign against dirty scrap imports, but that a ban would be different.
"There have been a lot of rumors that would indicate that this would potentially be more severe," said Joe Pickard, ISRI chief economist.
He said the recycling industry is looking at other countries as export destinations, including those in Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America and the Middle East. But it would be tough to easily replace China, and any ban could have a major impact on the U.S. industry, ISRI said. ISRI is working with the U.S. government to put the topic on the trade agenda with China, as well as working with European recycling groups.
"We're talking about $5.6 billion in trade, potentially affecting tens of thousands of jobs and the closure of facilities in the U.S. if a complete ban goes into effect," Wiener said.