China’s announcement last month to cease acceptance of various waste paper and plastic grades and a decrease of allowable contamination on imported bales resulted in widespread shock and condemnation of their approach to protect their environment and public health. Various associations have even called on their governments to intervene and to ‘make’ China continue to accept these wastes and maintain acceptance of existing contamination levels. The UK’s Recycling Association for example, has called the proposals to reduce contamination levels from 1.5% to 0.3% Old Corrugated Containers (OCC) in EN643 (European standard for paper for recycling) unrealistic. They have also formally requested that the Chinese Government reconsider the ban on post-consumer plastics.

In its submission, the UK’s Recycling Association took the opportunity to even warn the Chinese Government of possible increases in shipping costs of East-West routes as shipping companies seek to compensate for the loss of revenue. Yes – really!

China’s approach to addressing environmental pollution and public health should be commended – not touted as unfair by countries and organisations wishing to maintain the status quo of exporting waste which they themselves do not want to process. Instead, we should be focusing our efforts on building local (national) capacity and innovation to reuse these resources and build sustainable markets.

China’s solid waste recyclers have been facing increasing environmental regulatory scrutiny. Last week, environmental officials in China announced further inspections of companies which recycle imported wastes. These inspections form part of a five-month joint campaign between customs and the environmental authorities, targeting Chinese firms which import e-wastes (including larger appliances), tyres, plastics, and textiles. These inspections are seeking to close-down polluting enterprises, regulate processing zones, and guide the green growth of domestic recycling companies. The inspections may also inform further import bans of materials for recycling.

In July 2017, inspectors audited 1,792 imported waste processors of which 60% has serious breaches, such as excessive pollutant releases. As a result, fines for environmental breaches are to be increased, particularly targeting companies which smuggle solid waste into China. This is in addition to more frequent random inspections on companies involved in the importation of wastes.

These audits were critical in informing the recently announced bans on various paper and plastic categories into China, and the development of the action plan to ban the importing of ‘polluting garbage’ which will be completed by 2019.

These efforts have been as a result of ongoing and increasing levels of contamination (some hazardous) in imports of recyclate labelled as ‘raw materials’. It also forms part of a larger, targeted plan to address pollution levels (specifically air) and other pollutants which cause environmental damage and pose risks to public health.

The Ministry of Environment has developed a series of plans for regional campaigns to address pollution and provide more powers to regulators to manage polluting companies. One specific plan looks at the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and neighbouring provinces to control air pollution and may result in companies installing new pollution control technologies, potential relocation, through to closure.

There are increasing challenges in many of the material streams. Not least the progress towards the ‘limits of circularity’ for some materials (packaging) as we push resource use to maximise ‘minimisation’. For example, technological developments aimed at making PET bottles thinner and lighter have resulted in higher moisture content in bales and thinner flakes which are more likely to be discarded during the recycling process. We are also seeing more diversity in product offerings and materials resulting in our waste and recycling streams becoming increasingly complex and our labelling, collection schemes and sorting technologies have yet to catch up with these changes. For example, opaque PET bottles and PET trays are now increasingly being mixed with coloured PET bales. It is time we start to look at products in their entirety, with product designers and product manufacturers working more closely with the waste and recycling industry to develop a truly circular approach.