China presses on with scrap restrictions

China presses on with scrap restrictions

National government agencies release list of items prohibited starting Dec. 31.

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November 22, 2018
Brian Taylor

The government of China has released an updated list of more than 30 scrap materials that will be prohibited as imports beginning Dec. 31. The declaration reportedly has been made by several national Chinese government agencies working jointly.

According to a Nov. 19 online article from China’s Xinhua news agency, the “official document” lists 32 scrap materials or used items that will be banned at the end of 2018. The document was issued by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), Ministry of Commerce, National Development and Reform Commission and its General Administration of Customs (GACC).

Items newly added to the list, according to Xinhua, include stainless steel scrap, titanium scrap, wood scrap, as well as used hardware, ships and auto parts. The outright bans, combined with quality specifications that can be difficult to attain, have shrunk the volume of scrap materials shipped from recyclers in other countries to buyers in China.

China’s government and state media outlets such as Xinhua continue to frame the restrictions as environmental measures. “Some companies illegally bring foreign waste into the country for profit, posing a threat to the environment and public health,” states Xinhua, adding, “Given rising public awareness and China’s green development drive, the government last year decided to phase out and halt such imports by the end of 2019, except for those containing resources not substitutable.”

The final clause in the previous sentence provides ammunition to critics who see the policy primarily as a protectionist trade measure rather than an environmental issue.

At the start of this year, a 160-page report issued by the United States Trade Representative (USTR) expressed numerous concerns about China’s trade policies, with scrap materials among the many sectors mentioned.

On its website, the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) says it “supports the Chinese government’s efforts to protect the environment.” On the same trade policy website page, the trade group adds, “On March 1, 2018, the Chinese government implemented stricter technical standards for scrap imports, allowing only shipments that meet very strict thresholds for allowable contaminants to be imported. Unfortunately, existing technology makes meeting those targets a challenge for most scrap commodities. Through these policies and additional measures since, the Chinese government is curtailing the free and fair trade of scrap commodities into China.”

In the scrap paper market, a presenter at the early November 2018 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Europe contended that while these measures have been difficult for recyclers around the world, they are proving even more confounding for the buying customers based in China.

Francisco Donoso, who is based in Spain for the Germany-based ALBA Group, remarked, “Based on environmental reasons, they are not proportional to [recycling and pulping] technical efficiency improvements.”

Donoso said the new specifications also are “not proportional to economic margins” and that Chinese mills were not benefiting from “paying twice the price” for their recovered fiber. Chinese mills, he concluded, are “paying a premium because of limits imposed by the Chinese government.” He referred to it as a market distortion created for political reasons, concluding, “Quality is not the problem [for recyclers]; we have demonstrated we can adapt.”