The Green Fence came first. Launched by the Chinese government in 2013, the Green Fence was an initiative designed to ensure that bales of imported recyclables—in particular paper and plastics—contained those recyclables and no “garbage” or other materials. Just two months ago, the Chinese government has again attacked the same problem with a new policy called National Sword.
Since the announcement of this campaign, American recyclers have been pushing back. Some of our arguments are procedural, having to do with the very short notice of this new set of import restrictions, the lack of clarity about what recyclables the new rules cover and the need for internationally accepted standards for grades of recyclables. In addition, we have noted that requiring bales to have no more than 0.3 percent contaminants is an impossible standard. (Kudos to my colleague Anne Germain for writing NWRA’s comments.)
Clearly the Chinese government is concerned that garbage is being willfully sent to their country disguised as recyclables. An official of the Ministry of Environmental Protection told the press in July that “the problem of foreign garbage is loathed by everyone in China.” Press reports also indicate that a recent documentary, Plastic China, alleging the health and environmental harms of imported plastics for recycling, spurred Chinese officials to take action. How much real garbage was in bales of recyclables and how much was just run-of the-mill contaminants doesn’t matter. The Chinese government believes its country is being dumped on and they want to stop it.
We have good reason to be concerned. China imports about 30 percent of the paper collected for recycling in this country and at least an equivalent percentage of plastics. If this market were to shut down tomorrow, the result would not be pleasant for the American recycling industry.
But as a number of recyclers have pointed out, this sword cuts both ways. The Chinese government is anticipating a fast and strong increase in domestically generated paper and plastic. Yet they may have overestimated how quickly they can increase domestic supplies while underestimating the current recycling rate in China. Recent press reports have highlighted the negative impact of “surges” in prices for domestic recycled paper as import permits are reduced and local supplies are woefully short. This will lead to pressure from Chinese mills to allow quality bales of recyclable paper into the country.
In addition, American recycled fiber, especially OCC (old corrugated boxes), has a very good reputation for its long fibers. As a result, most industry analysts believe that imports of American OCC will continue to be accepted. While they may not meet the 99.97 percent purity requirement, they will come close enough to be allowed in.
Mixed paper presents a bigger problem. Twenty years ago, mixed paper was a low quality, low value orphan. Now, thanks to the rapid expansion of what we collect at the curbside, it is the perhaps the most important recycled paper grade for municipal programs. While we have domestic markets for this grade, their capacity is less than what we generate.
The good news is that the existing market (Pratt Recycling) was built with stock preparation systems designed for single stream generated mixed paper. The better news is that with the rise of e-commerce and the “browning” of mixed paper due to curbside-generated corrugated boxes, other mills now see mixed paper as a good fiber source and are planning their own stock preparation systems. The bad news is that this new capacity won’t go into operation overnight. As a result, expect a bumpy ride for mixed paper while we sort out what can be exported and increase domestic capacity.
As for plastics, especially mixed plastics, I have mixed news. The recent idling of the QRS processing facility in Baltimore shut down a major processor for this grade. Clean bales of PET and HDPE should be okay if they meet the purity requirement, mixed plastics will prove more challenging.
What can the recycling industry do to fix this problem? Processors who do a sloppy job need to clean up their act. Any MRF that is still dressing its paper bales (cutting off plastic bottles and other contaminants from the exterior of a bale) needs to come clean. Collectors and local governments need to step up on curbside enforcement. If you don’t collect crap you won’t have to process it out.
Most importantly, we need to rebuild the American paper industry. On Sept. 6, Graphics Paper announced the closing of its recycled paperboard mill in Santa Clara, Calif. According to the company, production would be shifted to lower cost Midwest and Southern mills. This is the 14th paper mill to close in California since 2000. Nine of them were recovered paper mills. We don’t create domestic markets when mills close.
What about the longer term? As I noted above, I’m not particularly worried about OCC. I am also optimistic, as are a number of industry analysts, that a grade of “clean” mixed paper will emerge with sufficient brown fiber and quality controls to be acceptable to Chinese authorities. After all, the modern Chinese paper mills were designed to take this grade of paper and they need it.
But I am worried that the Chinese government might consider recycling to be an inherently dirty business and that recycled paper and plastic are simply inferior in quality to virgin paper and plastic. If that is what the government means by “garbage,” we have a bigger problem on our hands. We must take the National Sword seriously. Process better, collect cleaner materials and, most importantly, rebuild the American recycling industry.
Chaz Miller is director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association in Washington, D.C.