China's latest crackdown of plastics waste imports, launched in early February, seems to be getting more stringent, with heightened port inspections, shipment slowdowns and 90 arrests in anti-smuggling campaigns, according to Chinese industry sources.
The Beijing-based China Scrap Plastics Association said in a Feb. 27 statement that the new effort included nationwide action Feb. 24 by China's General Administration of Customs at nine major ports and government action on other fronts, like crackdowns on the improper use of import licenses.
"Some regard this campaign as the second Green Fence," said Steve Wong, CSPA executive president, referring to a 2013 crackdown seen as China's biggest to date on waste imports.
"While plastic recycling can sometimes be one of the industries responsible for pollution, the government's intention is to crack down on all recycling operations without proper controls and facilities," he said in the statement. "This policy will become a 'new normal' for China in the future."
The newest campaign, called National Sword 2017, began with a government announcement Feb. 7 and is expected to last one year.
Another Chinese industry group, the recycling committee of the Beijing-based China Plastics Processing Industry Association, said that Guangdong province and other areas have been "seriously affected," with companies concerned about imports stacking up at ports and some importers facing "survival challenges."
"The door is getting narrow," said Kathy Xuan, a board member of CPPIA's recycling committee and CEO of Parc Corp., a Romeoville, Illinois-based plastics recycler that also has a facility in Qingdao, China.
Industry sources said the government is generally trying to limit solid waste imports bound for processing in smaller factories without proper pollution controls.
They expect fewer problems importing clean, previously processed recyclable materials that can be directly used to make other goods.
One source said National Sword was "getting more serious than expected," but industry officials hoped that the public and government realize recycled materials can be legitimate resources.
"The future trend we believe will be to restrict imports of solid waste but allow non-polluting scraps such as recycled regrinds and pellets, which can be used directly for production," said Wong, who is also chairman of Hong Kong-based recycler Fukutomi Co. Ltd.
"Imported waste, in particular [hazardous electronic] e-waste and plastic waste fractions, has been highlighted as 'foreign waste' and identified as an origin of severe pollution," CSPA said, "caused partly as a result of the recycling being carried out at small workshops without proper facilities."
Still, CSPA said China wants to encourage more recycling and "is determined to increase the recycling rate from their own commercial and domestic waste streams including plastic packaging and WEEE [e-waste]."
National Sword is not limited to plastics. It includes waste metals and is part of a broader crackdown on smuggling operations, including in drugs and guns.
CSPA reported that the crackdown thus far has resulted in 15 smuggling operations being exposed, with 90 arrests and the confiscation of more than 22,000 tons of "foreign waste," including e-waste, household waste and plastic waste: "Many forwarding agents have suspended operations as a result of the actions."
CPPIA's Xuan said some recycling operations in China are being shut down, including a large plastics film recycling center in Laizhou, Shandong province, that employed thousands of people.
CSPA identified several features of the campaign that will impact day-to-day business, including customs checks on "100 percent of the import materials, and this will increase the lead time by up to four times and incur additional reloading cost."
The association also said the campaign includes "high-profile" inspections and suspending of recycling at facilities without proper water treatment; action against "dummy factories" and misuse of licenses; and the repatriation of some shipments back to their loading ports.
While the new campaign will increase costs for recyclers, Wong said it will level the playing field for "bona fide" recycling companies.
"The actions of the government will go some way to remove the unfair advantage gained by illegal operators," he said. Wong is also a member of the plastics committee of the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling, an industry group.
CPPIA advised companies to improve their business models, import legally and refuse unqualified waste.