The Bureau of International Recycling has confirmed that clean PET flakes have been recategorized in China from a waste prohibited from import to an accepted commodity import.
According to Steve Wong, executive president of China Scrap Plastics Association (CSPA) in Beijing, scrap plastic imports into China this year will likely be significantly lower than in 2017 – possibly by 95 percent.
CSPA says that so far this year, China has authorized import permits for roughly 375 million pounds of recyclable plastic – just 3 percent of the 12.9 billion pounds of recyclable plastic imported in 2017.
China has been affected by its strict National Sword policies, which ban many categories of scrap plastic and mixed paper from import and imposes strict new contamination rate laws, along with the rest of the world. With the announcement of new policies in 2017, the CSPA estimated that about 65 percent of Chinese plastics recycling companies that relied on scrap plastic imports had closed down, about 10 percent shifted to the domestic industry and the remaining roughly 20 percent moved operations elsewhere, typically to Southeast Asia.
According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), recyclables exports are being shifted to Southeast Asian countries. In 2017, Malaysia nearly quadrupled its imports of plastic, with PVC imports increasing 407 percent. PE imports have increased since 2016 by 50 percent in India, 166 percent in Vietnam and 876 percent in Thailand. Turkey has nearly doubled its PET imports since 2016.
Despite the significant increases of scrap plastics into Southeast Asian countries, nations around the globe still find themselves stockpiling scrap materials with no clear destination.
Chinese plastics recycling companies that have moved to Southeast Asia refine and reprocess scrap into pellets, which are allowed to be imported into China.
However, there is still a shortage of recycled pellets of over 5 million tons for factories in China, making virgin materials necessary to meet the demand. In March, the CSPA reported that over half of shipments of recycled pellets were randomly checked by custom officials to ensure the pellets went directly to factories to be used as feedstock.
In response to this shortage, one ban has been lifted.
The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) stated on May 18 that the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment has confirmed its announcement that the import of high-grade PET chips as “ordinary goods” is now allowed, as they are in accordance with general trade regulation.
Clean PET flakes have been recategorized from a waste prohibited from import to an accepted commodity import. This follows Wong’s report in early May that “the General Administration of Customs of China is expected to soon announce the guidelines for accepting good quality recycled PET flakes as a commodity import.”
Accepting the import of quality PET “bottle-grade chips” signifies changes in Southeast Asian scrap plastics companies. Operations no longer have to pelletize clean, recycled PET flakes so the material becomes an accepted import. Instead, this material can be directly shipped to China. Because it is considered as "ordinary goods", it can also be imported without a license.
Though this change may signify the possible flexibility of National Sword policies, it is still not enough to solve the world’s current “plastics crisis.” The CSPA notes that the industry must develop better materials recovery facility (MRF) machinery to process low-grade recycled materials, and countries should focus on producing only recyclable materials as well as improving their domestic recycling infrastructures to then handle these materials.