Possibly cracking open the door in its ban on plastic scrap imports, the Chinese government may allow some grades of clean material in, if they can be used directly in manufacturing, according to a Chinese industry group.
The Beijing-based China Scrap Plastic Association said in a Nov. 14 statement that Chinese officials have sent some qualified signals that they're open to materials like washed flake.
"It is perceived that there is a possible leeway of certain forms of plastic scraps such as washed flakes allowed for import in 2018, if it can be justified by a 'recognized standard' as feedstock for finished goods production without prior processing," CSPA Executive President Steve Wong said.
He said he spoke on Nov. 8 with the director of China's General Administration of Customs, one of the agencies leading the crackdown on imports, on the sidelines of a CSPA conference in China. He asked if some imports could be allowed in, even with the far-reaching ban that's formally expected to start next year.
Wong said the response was "supportive" with a sense that "it is reasonable for the General Administration of Customs to consider based on a set of recognized standards."
"A standard recognizing that the washed flakes can be classified as industrial or secondary materials as it can be used directly as feedstock for production of finished goods without prior processing," Wong said. "In other words, to justify that raw materials for finished goods production need not necessarily be in the form of pellets."
In announcing its ban in July, China had put a focus on the environment, taking aim at "foreign garbage" and imports of solid waste that are "highly polluted."
Wong said such washed flake scrap could be classified as industrial materials, equivalent to resin pellets. Still, the general trend will be toward much tougher import rules in China, he said.
"While revision of the import permit application criteria is underway, it is expected by the industry that strict requirements aiming at reduction of quantity and control of import permit user and usage including compliance of pollutant emission controls would be the scope of consideration," he said.
In a related development, China's government also relaxed another new restriction on imported scrap, in the form of "carried waste" standards limiting levels of contaminated materials within imports of scrap plastic.
China's government had earlier this year proposed a level of 0.3 percent but on Nov. 15 announcement it would allow "carried waste" in recycled plastic imports at 0.5 percent.
That change is not enough for global recycling organizations, including the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
"Although ISRI is heartened that the new proposal moves away from the 0.3 [percent] threshold, the new levels are still of great concern," said ISRI President Robin Wiener.
Wiener said ISRI is also working with Chinese and U.S. government authorities to allow materials like recycled pellets and washed plastics to be imported into China. Speaking at a Nov. 15 conference in Washington, she said that remains "a work in progress."
China is motivated broadly by cleaning up its environment and is not specifically targeting plastics or narrowly looking only at problems with contaminated bales of imported plastic, she said. But Wiener said Chinese authorities have made it increasingly clear that they want the country to develop its domestic recycling, and become a large exporter of those materials.
That would be a significant shift. Right now, China is the world's largest importer of recycled plastic, taking in 51 percent of world trade in recycled plastic, including about 70 percent of U.S. plastic scrap, ISRI said.
Wiener said China's government has spoken "loud and clear about their intention to become a powerhouse in the export market for scrap in the coming years. They are very serious about looking to increase their domestic industry."