29 August 2017 by Steve Eminton

Consultation closes on revised China import rules

Consultation closed before the Bank Holiday weekend (25 August) on proposals from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection over changes to import controls of materials for recycling within the country.

China paper exports

China imports 3.6 million tonnes of paper for recycling from the UK each year

The consultation will lead to the revision of current GB Standards for the importing of “solid wastes as raw materials”, and is set to have a dramatic impact on a number of sectors including paper, plastics and metal.

The intentions of China to crack down on the quality of materials sent for recycling (which it terms as solid waste) were signalled in July 2017 when it filed two Technical Barriers to Trade notifications with the World Trade Organisation.

Action is being taken widely within China over environmental breaches under its 13th Five-Year Plan, with missions being sent into each part of the country and officials ordered to crack down on environmental breaches. The work on the import side for recycling/waste materials forms part of this environmental work which has impacted on businesses such as paper mills in China.


Metals exporters are facing tighter controls on other materials such as rubber and plastic within ferrous and non-ferrous loads. Materials such as cables are likely to be particularly badly hit as separation of most of the plastics around copper and other metals has traditionally taken place in China but is likely to be no longer allowed.


Exporters of plastic bottles and film for recycling from post-consumer sources could be hit particularly hard, with a potential complete ban on some materials although this is still to be confirmed. This could lead to a glut of plastics in the UK in at least the short-term, while recyclers seek businesses to shred material with the granules produced then acceptable to be exported to China or to other users. Local authority collections are yet to be impacted but plastics recyclers have voiced concerns and some consider that already it is impossible to export film (used polythene) to China and that there is insufficient domestic reprocessing capacity.

Contamination of plastic bottles and other plastics in the waste stream remains a significant problem in some areas and extra sorting and shredding will be an extra cost.


Standard document

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection is proposing to amend its GB Standard document

Potentially the biggest impact could be on the waste paper front with restrictions on paper sent to China for recycling. China is a hugely important market for UK paper recyclers with 3.6 million tonnes exported last year. Of this 2.4 million tonnes was used cardboard while near 1.1 million tonnes of mixed papers were exported. This mixed paper usually contains some newspapers and other papers from households such as cereal boxes, pizza boxes, leaflets and loose papers.

There have been concerns about the contamination which has been found in some loads of mixed paper exports and the paper industry has been trying to get the message over that quality is important, with the Recycling Association, for example, running its Quality First campaign.

Under the current National Standard of the People’s Republic of China GB16487, implemented in 2006, a 1.5% non-paper material items, were allowed at 1.5% of the weight of the imported waste paper.

Lower limit

Now, it has been proposed in the consultation document that the limit is lowered to 0.3%. And, it has also been proposed to withdraw one of the classifications, numbered as Harmonized System Code 4707.9000.00. This allows for the import of “Other recycled (waste and scrap) paper and paperboard, including unsorted”.

There is an additional proposal in the consultation for a ban on “unsorted mixed paper”.

The proposal to drop the allowed contamination levels for imports of bales into China has been criticised by The Recycling Association for being “unrealistic” (see letsrecycle.com story).

The revised GB Standard import catalogue is expected by the end of 2017.

As a result of the consultation proposals, there is a huge amount of nervousness within the paper recycling sector. There is much discussion as to whether the proposed changes are feasible in a short-term with the paper restrictions coming in at the end of December and the metals ones potentially coming into force later this month.

Some in the recycling sector feel that the price of mixed material could tumble in the coming weeks with OCC bouncing up but uncertainty is emphasised across the sector.

paper exports

Exports of paper and plastics will be affected by the regulation changes

Others talking of the need to reach agreement on a new grade which could be exported to China, possibly containing more newspapers although the volume of newspapers is continuing to decline at around 10% or more each year.

New grades?

One paper sector exporter told letsrecycle.com: “An 80:20 cardboard grade is common within Europe and we could see this develop. This would have mixed papers in the 20% but they would have to be clean.”

Another remarked: “This is the biggest thing since China came on to the marked and for plastics and mixed paper, this is a game changer.”

One international expert told letsrecycle.com that he thought mixed papers could have to be “up-sorted” with some going to China and some of the mixed going to other markets with new grades possible. He added: “These solutions are part of wider changes that require a new way of thinking about our environmental footprint. We need to work together with stakeholders throughout the supply chain so that quality and standards of material continue to improve for all those concerned.”

Upsorting of mixed papers will come at a cost, letsrecycle.com was told. “We will see the installation of second sorting lines or material going form MRFs to other sites for sorting and this cost will have to be met somewhere in the chain.”

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