Hangzhou, China — China's plastics recycling sector is in the midst of huge changes, pivoting away from what has been its historical, profit-driven model into something with more of a public role, akin to the government-led approaches in other major economies.
At least that's what it seemed like at the annual Replas convention and trade show in October in the city of Hangzhou.
"The plastics industry and the plastics recycling industry need to be completely rebuilt," said Wang Wang, executive vice president of the China Plastics Reuse and Recycling Association, which sponsored the event. "We've come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.
"We're still at the very beginning of facing the challenge of preventing plastic from polluting the environment," Wang said in an interview at the Oct. 19-21 event. "This includes developing technology, standards, policies and really the entire structure of the industry."
The conference featured discussion about the larger role of China's government in waste management and collecting materials, as well as nascent efforts to build guidelines for recyclability of packaging design.
At Replas in 2019, it was clear that industry players were already starting to change course. There was much talk of China's Zero Waste pilot program to enforce domestic garbage sorting that went into effect in mid-2019 in some cities.
In 2020, after the global pandemic delayed the event by several months, the impact was clear by glancing around at the attendees. Whereas the event in years past featured a diverse array of nationalities, travel restrictions meant that in-person attendance this time was almost 100 percent Chinese.
There was a sizable uptick in the number of big brands attending, including representatives from H&M, Nestle, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Sony, and Decathlon, as well as online shopping giants TaoBao and JD.com and supermarket brands RT-Mart and Walmart.
Wang said CPRRA wants to bring in a wider network as it navigates a new environment.
That includes having a recycled packaging design competition awards program for the first time, to standardize and elevate those sorts of efforts as they are in some other countries, Wang said.
China's industry needs to establish design guidelines and product labels to better educate consumers about what they can recycle, as well as support university packaging curriculum.
"I think we have to accelerate, catch up with them and bridge the gap between China's recyclable design system and foreign countries," Wang said.