There's a lot that remains unclear about China's July 18 blockbuster announcement that it will ban imports of scrap plastics and other recyclables, but one thing is clear: Beijing's plans will have major implications.
About half of the global trade in recycled polyethylene goes to China, for example.
It's true that exports of some recycled plastics from the United States to China have tapered off in recent years, as China's government has made repeated attempts to clean up the waste and scrap the country imports.
But it remains the world's most important market for scrap, which is used to feed China's huge manufacturing sector.
Industry officials say it's not clear how much of the ban would be directed at post-consumer vs. post-industrial sources, particularly from food and beverage packaging.
There are also indications that China is working on new standards for identifying what is solid waste. That could clarify what are clean vs. dirty materials and influence how the ban is implemented.
Groups like the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. and the Bureau of International Recycling have raised concerns with governments about the economic impact.
China says it's motivated by cleaning up its environment. It says too much dirty waste gets in with the recycled materials.
And too often Chinese factories process the scrap without good pollution controls, with the water used to clean the waste materials is not being properly treated. One U.S. official watching the ban closely suggested that "anything that is processed with water is on the radar screen at this point."
China has a strong need to clean up its environment, no one can argue that. There's also speculation that a second motivation is China's desire to boost its own domestic collection of plastics.
Some longtime observers of world recycling trends, like author Adam Minter, question if a ban will make China's environment cleaner.
In an opinion piece in Bloomberg View, Minter said it was a "crowd-pleasing stand" to criticize "foreign garbage," as Beijing refers to it in its WTO filing.
But Minter says that overseas scrap imported to China is actually cleaner than the domestically collected materials — that's why it's popular — so the ban will have the unintended consequence of depriving Chinese manufacturers of a better source of materials.
U.S. groups, like the Association of Plastic Recyclers, are still assessing. They anticipate potential positives if China's ban keeps more recycled plastic in the United States for use domestically and cuts the U.S. dependence on China's sometimes volatile market.
New Zealand's environment minister made the same point in an Aug. 2 unveiling of a new PET bottle recycling plant in that country — China's ban offers a chance to "on shore" recycling of more plastics.
So maybe we're headed toward a rebalancing of recycling trade, where more waste materials are reclaimed and processed back into something usable inside the country they're collected in. There's evidence Chinese firms are looking at setting up recycling operations in other countries to do just that.
To really see trade in recyclables rebalance, though, there must be more demand for the materials from local manufacturers, a point the New Zealand minister made.
Big consumer product companies can double down on efforts, and governments can use more incentives and rewards for recycled content. That will be key.
Toloken is Plastics News' news editor-international. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.