China’s plastic scrap sector isn’t green yet

Reported reductions in China’s plastic recycling may not be a sign of an industry cleaning its act up

Imports and consumption of plastic scrap by China’s manufacturers dropped significantly during 2013, according to news reports, a year after the Chinese government launched Operation Green Fence in a bid to stamp out low-quality scrap imports.

Consumption of plastic scrap by Chinese manufacturers was down 14.5% compared to 2012. Imports of plastic scrap was also down 11% in 2013, according to James Wang, general secretary of the China Scrap Plastics Association.

However, a recycling observer says the latest figures should be treated with caution, especially in terms of consumption.

"China's secondary plastics recycling industry remains highly fragmented and dominated by small-scale, family-owned workshops that have little incentive – or pressure – to report their production to government authorities," says Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, a book on the global recycling industry.

"Much of their production is consolidated with that of other small producers and then sold via brokers to manufacturers. Those manufacturers oftentimes wouldn't be able to trace the source of the plastics if they hired investigators to do it for them. In other cases, the manufacturers sometimes don't know – and sometimes don't want to know – if the plastics they purchase are virgin or recycled. But, if pressed, they'll report something to the relevant authorities. As a result, the most accurate data comes from large-scale, typically government subsidized (if not owned, in some capacity) firms."

Minter says the decline in recycled plastic consumption is more likely to be due to economic conditions. He's also unsure what impact Operation Green Fence actually had on plastics imports.

"It's true that the anti-smuggling operation turned back many containers. But those don't compare to the number of containers that weren't shipped for fear of an enforcement action. In general, the grades of plastics that didn't arrive in China were generally low-grades of mixed plastics. That noted, from my perspective, what's remarkable is how little decline there was in plastic imports in spite of the ballyhooed talk of environmental-related bans. Either the Green Fence was highly ineffective or – as seems more likely to me – most of the plastics that were shipped to China during the period in question were acceptable under Chinese regulations."

"Finally, it's very much worth noting that whatever declines happened in imported plastics were certainly made up by increasing volumes in low-grade plastics produced by Chinese consumers and businesses."