7 November 2017 by Elizabeth Slow

China quality limits prompt search for solutions

The impact of proposed restrictions on the export of recyclable materials to China is still uncertain according to the waste management sector with companies generally looking to find ways to improve material for export.

Britain’s waste management sector is still uncertain about the impact of proposed restrictions on the export of recyclable materials to China

Britain’s waste management sector described the situation as having “some unknowns” with regard to import restrictions on recyclables for China.

The comment comes from its trade association, the Environmental Services Association, which has emphasised that the restrictions “are a serious challenge to the whole supply chain to improve quality for material going to China and to compete for alternative markets”.

Jakob Rindegren, ESA recycling policy advisor, said: “We have not yet had a final decision on the GB standard or import licences so there are still some unknowns. ESA is focusing on minimising any disruption in the short term and we are in close contact with our members and the regulators.”

Restrictions

“ESA is focusing on minimising any disruption in the short term and we are in close contact with our members and the regulators.”


Jakob Rindegren
ESA

China is expected to confirm its plans for restrictions by the end of year but UK recyclers are already preparing for the tighter controls over waste paper and plastics imports. Plans currently include additional sorting, exporting to new or existing markets such as in Europe, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Other materials are also being impacted including the export of scrap cable with the metals recycling sector now having to shred and process the material more in the UK before exporting the metal.

Generally there seems to be no mood of panic but one of recognising a need to do something, one sector expert told letsrecycle.com.

Actions

Within the sector, a variety of actions are taking place.

Mick Davis, managing director of Biffa’s RR& T division, said: “We are monitoring the situation closely and can understand that the Chinese government want to promote quality of source materials, which no-one can argue against.”

And, Mr Davis referenced the companies modern MRF in North London, saying: “At Edmonton we have just completed a major installation of infra-red sorting technology to improve the quality of our recycled fibre and have re-configured our existing plants as part of a continuous improvement plan. The results have been extremely positive and we are working towards a sustainable solution with our three strategic trading partners in China.”

‘Significant risk’

Suez confirmed that it was looking at various solutions. Mark Woodroffe, Head of Trading for SUEZ recycling and recovery UK said: “SUEZ has taken the decision that continuing export of mixed paper grades to China in the current climate presents a significant risk and we are therefore currently evaluating a number of alternative markets.

“The capacity of these alternative markets is likely to be limited, so we are also looking at other solutions, along with the Suez group, to review our operational processes regarding quality control – ensuring we capture as much higher-grade material from incoming streams as possible to utilise in alternative markets and more accessible sectors of the market.”

Mr Woodroffe continued: “However, this is an industry-wide issue and both the sector and policy-makers need to recognise that the UK is, most definitely, a net exporter of recovered paper grades, since there is simply not enough demand in the UK market.

“Currently, only about 30 per cent of the UK’s export volume of mixed paper grades could be processed domestically, which leaves a large gap to fill for which there is no obvious short to medium term solution.”

Rebates for material, in particular lower quality mixed polymers, have taken a significant dip in recent months

Others in the sector told letsrecycle.com of their move to additional sorting of material which would reduce the “rebate” payable to local authorities. One recycler said: “We can move mixed papers to India and Indonesia but MRF material is really difficult. We are trialling additional sorting and hope that will work but there is an extra cost. However, there is a theory that commonsense will have to prevail as this will put pressure on Chinese manufacturers.”

Plastics

In the recovered plastics sector, the market is still coming to terms with the long-term implications of the Chinese export restrictions, with mixed bottles, films and pots, tubs and trays among the grades most heavily impacted.

In recent months, rebates for material, in particular lower quality mixed polymers, have taken a significant dip, albeit cushioned by a plastic PRN that hit a peak of £85 in September helping to keep material moving to emerging markets including Vietnam and the Philippines.

However, with PRN prices having dipped to below the £30 mark in light of the most recent packaging recycling figures, traders have suggested that demand for plastic could drop further still.

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