China's proposed ban on scrap plastic imports could be part of a "tsunami" of increasing pressure on companies to use more recycled content in their products, according to the head of a U.S. plastics recycling association.
Steve Alexander, president of the Washington-based Association of Plastic Recyclers, singled out California as a hot spot for more government pressure, and linked it to China's announcement during an Aug. 17 APR webinar to brief the industry on China's action.
"My concern is that this activity by China and other market activity could lead to some, almost a tsunami if you will, of very stringent regulatory requirements," Alexander said.
"We have to deal with this because the potential regulatory implication seems to be lining up in a perfect storm for California to implement some very draconian regulatory oversight of industry, in terms of certain requirements for packaging," he said.
While he said many details of the Chinese ban remain unclear, making predictions difficult, industry observers said it could weaken traditional recycled plastic export markets, particularly on the West Coast.
Alexander suggested industry, including consumer brand companies, step up recycled content ahead of potential government pressure.
"We're going to have to show, the brands are going to have to show, in my opinion, sustained commitment to incorporating recycled material in their marketplace, or I believe that they're going to be forced to do it," Alexander said.
In particular, he said California's government is looking at policy initiatives to meet its stated goal of a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020. Last year the state's recycling rate was 44 percent.
Alexander said California Gov. Jerry Brown "has made it very clear to his regulatory staff that when he leaves office by the end of 2018," the state should have programs in place to move toward and maintain that recycling rate.
California's Rigid Plastic Packaging Container law is one of only a limited number of legal requirements in the United States that companies use recycled content in plastic packaging, but Alexander suggested interest is growing.
He said China's proposed ban, unveiled last month, is also accelerating "just about everything," including interest in efforts like the European Union's circular economy legislation and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy project.
"[The foundation's] core activity, they're looking to change the way brands treat plastics and how they utilize plastics in the marketplace," he said.
While there's been a lot of "gnashing of teeth" about China's proposed ban, he said many plastics recyclers see potential to strengthen the industry in the U.S. over time, even if there are short-term problems.
"Most of the recyclers that we talk about feel this [China ban] is potentially a positive opportunity for our industry, particularly in North America, because it's really an opportunity for the recycling [collection] infrastructure ... to really make the investment that has long been necessary so that we're not dependent on a volatile export market and China in particular," he said.