Have you ever wondered what happens to the soda can that you toss into a recycling bin?
Chances are high that it ends up in China - like 75 percent of the aluminum scrap that the United States exports. Or 60 percent of its scrap paper exports. Or 50 percent of its plastic.
But a new Chinese edict, banning "foreign rubbish," has thrown the international scrap and waste trade into turmoil and is posing a major new challenge for US recyclers.
Operation Green Fence, a campaign by Chinese customs to strictly enforce laws governing the import of waste, "could be a game changer," says Doug Kramer, president of Kramer Metals, an international scrap dealer in Los Angeles. "A lot of companies have used China as a dumping ground, getting rid of ... substandard scrap and trash," Mr. Kramer says.
As China's government seeks to raise environmental standards, he says, "I understand China's need to take a hard look" at its imports.
That hard look, involving stepped-up inspections of containers filled with scrap metal, paper, and plastic at Chinese ports and a merciless application of the rules, has intercepted more than 800,000 tons of illegal waste since the campaign began in February, according to the customs agency.
Now nervous traders are refusing to ship consignments of recyclables that might contain unacceptably large amounts of unrecyclable materials (anything from unwashed items to the wrong kind of plastic to random bits and pieces of garbage that get mixed in with the recyclables). And cities and towns across the US and Europe are finding there is no longer a ready market in China for their poorly sorted and often impure bales of plastics, paper, and other waste.
"A butterfly in China has caused a tornado in Europe," Surendra Borad, chairman of Gemini, the world's largest collector of waste plastic, told the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), an international federation of recyclers, at its annual convention in Shanghai last month.
Why China needs the West's scrap
However, China is not bringing down the hammer on every kind of scrap (and "scrap" is the preferred term of art). The country has few resources of its own, and its fast-growing industry relies heavily on reprocessing other countries' plastic soda bottles into fabrics, or their junked metal into machinery.
"Making proper use of this scrap supplements China's resources, helps save energy, protects the environment, and boosts economic efficiency," Li Xinmin, a former pollution inspector at the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, told a recent meeting of the China Metals Recycling Association.
But in China, much of the imported plastic scrap, for example, is recycled in primitive, family-owned workshops with no facilities to treat waste water before it flows into local rivers. And Chinese recyclers "have got used to expecting 20 percent trash" in the bales of mixed plastics they buy from the US, according to David Cornell, technical consultant to the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
That trash has to be sorted from the recyclables, then buried or burned, further degrading China's environment.
Though Chinese regulations have long banned excessive levels of contamination in imports of recyclables, they were rarely enforced until Green Fence was launched, traders say. "Before, we were able to import dirty materials and bottles, but not any longer," explains Sun Kangning, who owns a small plastics recycling plant in the village of Laizhou in Shandong Province (see sidebar on the industry's woes).
Since February, he says, 24 shipping containers of plastic waste that he had bought from the US have been turned away by customs - about 20 percent of his business.
Because the government finds it hard to control all the mom and pop makeshift recycling workshops, it appears to have chosen to enforce environmental standards on imports at the pier.
Those imports have been skyrocketing in recent years. …