The China Import Ban and Its Effects on the Global Recycling Market

Peter Clayson, General Manager for Business Development & External Affairs at DS Smith Recycling, discusses how improved recycling infrastructures will provide a viable long-term solution to managing the export gap following China’s import ban.

 On 1 March, China’s game-changing waste legislation came into force, prohibiting the import of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste. The global recycling import ban aims to reduce environmental contamination and to drive China towards self-sufficiency, and blocks more than 163 million metric tonnes of resource from entering the country every year.

It’s crucial to understand the implications this change will have on global recycling markets, and the ways in which this will affect how we manage our recycling infrastructure in the UK. If we don’t, plastics and papers intended for recycling could continue to stockpile in waste depots, with increasing risks of them being landfilled or burnt.

Number of recycled paper tonnes collected in the UK every year

8 Mn

We reprocess less than half of this wihin our borders - The rest of it is exported to other global markets

The global recycling marketplace

According to the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI), the UK collects more than eight million tonnes of recycled paper every year, sourced from a combination of commercial and municipal collections nationwide.

However, we reprocess less than half of this within our borders, and we export the volume we can’t reprocess to other markets around the globe – making the UK a significant player in the global recycling market. 

At DS Smith, we manage more than five million tonnes of paper for recycling every year across Europe, with around two million tonnes coming from the UK alone – everything from cardboard and newsprint through to mixed grades from municipal collections. Of that five million European tonnes, just over half is used within our ten recycled paper mills across Europe, which provides the finished paper products for our packaging production operations. That is a significant closed loop story that we are really proud of.

That means, like the UK, we sell a significant amount of paper for recycling into the global market outside of DS Smith, providing the feedstock for a network of paper mill partners across Europe, India, and of course China.

China is the global manufacturing headquarters for many industries, so it has a constant demand for high-quality packaging materials. While virgin fibres and domestic recycling feedstock go some way to meet this, historically, China has needed to import recycled paper fibre to make into packaging for their products. 

What is the legislation behind China's waste import ban?

The widely-publicised import ban was agreed in direct response to a national audit of both paper and steel reprocessing facilities. According to the results, a considerable number of sites failed to meet required environmental standards. Feedstock contamination levels were the most common breach.

Mills were penalised, and standards tightened across the country, with cardboard contamination rates restricted to 0.5% rather than the previous 1.5%. For context, in the EU, our standard, EN643, states a maximum level of 1.5% contamination for ‘non-paper components’. 

Implementing such firm legislation will provide for an increase in the output quality of China’s mills. Undoubtedly a key driver for China is a desire not to be seen as ‘the world’s dustbin’. They want quality recyclables for their economy, and they will look to markets and suppliers who can provide those quality recyclables while their infrastructure improves to allow them to recycle more and more of their own materials.

Outside China, there can be no doubt that the markets are in disarray over the reduction in import quotas for materials for recycling, coupled with their outright ban on mixed paper and mixed plastic grades. So what is to be done?

A mixed bag – exploring paper grades

As a grade, mixed paper typically comes from kerbside domestic sources. Rather than single-stream, such as cardboard packaging from supermarkets, which contains only one grade of paper, mixed bales comprise a combination of newspapers, card, and other grades. Mixed papers can come from mixed dry recycling collections – meaning that they were collected with plastics and other materials before being sorted at a recycling facility. It’s these mixed papers that carry the highest risk of contamination.

The best scenario for high quality recycling, particularly of paper, requires materials to be collected separately, and to stay separate throughout the collection process, which limits contamination. Mixed recycling collections can provide high quality output through efficient onward sourcing facilities, but in general, separate collections grant the best chance of limiting contamination.

What China wants to manage out is low quality, contaminated papers for recycling.

Does mixed paper mean poor quality? Absolutely not, especially if collections focus on ensuring that paper and card are kept separate from other materials – something that was highlighted in WRAP’s 2017 ‘Framework for Greater Consistency’ report. This becomes even more important when you consider trends like the rise of e-commerce, with increasing amounts of packaging material ending up in our domestic waste streams.

Limited operations

So where does this leave the UK in terms of exporting recyclables to a global market? To be frank, the position is challenging. The UK government has admitted that China’s import ban came as a complete shock and, while we obviously have trade routes with other nations, China was a significant importer of both paper and plastic feedstock. But should it have been such a surprise?

Operation Green Fence, formally implemented by China in February 2013, should have been the first warning that quality needed to become a significantly greater focus for the UK’s collectors of material for recycling. Now, China has implemented an even stricter crackdown – leading to tonnage that now cannot be moved to the world’s biggest recycling market.

It’s a terrible shame that we’re considering the dated ‘bury or burn’ tactic for valuable recyclate. Is this the wake-up call that the UK needs to change our national waste strategy for the future?

The big quality debate

The mixed paper ban aims to prevent low-quality material from entering China, so unless we can prove the value of mixed papers to the Chinese authorities, legislation will remain concrete.

The UK has a key part to play. A lack of uniformity in recycling collections has meant that municipal contamination is rife. It should be obvious that if you mix plastic, glass fragments, and food waste with fibre, a previously valuable product becomes potentially unrecyclable. We have to change our processes and improve the quality of our recyclate. Will this change China’s mind overnight? No. But it’s a fundamental step in improving recycling rates, both locally and globally.

At DS Smith, the Chinese import ban is a challenge, but our own focus on quality has served us well: our global trade links for our paper for recycling remain strong. Quality is fundamental to all of this, and we continue to innovate, embracing new and improved processes for our own depots, mills, and for our global client base.

With the UK industry in turmoil over China’s feedstock restrictions, we’re issuing a call to action. Our long-term trade links demand higher standards, but our current municipal collection models fail to deliver a consistently high quality of material.

We need legislative change. The recent announcement of a consultation on Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), and the commitment to PRN reform, demonstrate a political appetite to improve our recycling systems – as such, these should be viewed as steps in the right direction. DRS will have its own challenges, but DS Smith is already involved in effective schemes within Europe. But if the UK fails to improve our national recycling infrastructure, we will fail to hit our recycling targets, and will erode the economic benefit that the resource sector delivers to the UK from both its domestic and export activities.

We should never have reached a situation in which UK material was too contaminated to leave our shores – or where the alternatives are that recyclable material might be burned or buried due to a lack of reprocessing capacity.