A session at the ISRI Convention in Nashville, Tenn. featured (from left) moderator Jacqueline Lotzkar, Zhang Lin and Robin Cai. | Dan Leif/E-Scrap News

Last week’s Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Convention put a focus on two issues critical to the global side of the sector: the state of recycling in China and efforts to enhance shipping protocols.

The 2023 ISRI Convention in Nashville, Tenn. was the group’s largest-ever annual gathering, drawing just over 6,600 attendees, according to the organization.  

ISRI has traditionally emphasized the importance of the global trade of recycled metals and other materials, and that fact was on display in a number of the on-stage discussions at the event, which ran from April 17-20 at the Music City Center.

“The Current State of Recycling in China,” held April 19, took an in-depth look at how non-ferrous metals recycling has evolved in recent years, with much discussion exploring the impacts of more stringent requirements on recycled non-ferrous material imports.

New standards from China on some recycled metals took effect in November 2020, noted Robin Cai, managing director of Asia for U.S.-based Alter Metal Recycling. And the impacts have been felt by processors the world over.

“Our industry has experienced some unprecedented difficulties,” Cai said on stage. “The brand new standards established are far harder to reach than the ISRI [specifications].”

A separate session featured Carl Bentzel, commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission. He outlined details about a report his agency released last week to help increase data transparency and shipper notification efforts through the ocean freight supply chain.

The report’s recommendations aim to solve some key communication issues between cargo carriers and material shippers that were exacerbated during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bentzel said in a virtual presentation at the ISRI Convention that shippers should be able to know “where their cargo is at all times and when [they] can get it out of the terminal going forward.”

A look inside China

Along with Cai of Alter Metals, the session on non-ferrous metals recycling in China also included Zhang Lin, deputy secretary general for the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association Recycling Metal Branch. 

Non-ferrous metals are those that do not include iron. Aluminum, copper and brass are three key metals in the global recycling market that fit into this category.

Lin made the point that although China has implemented a number of policy measures dealing with recycled material imports, recycling companies in the country are continuing to grow their output of processed product. That’s an indication that demand for feedstock from Chinese metals recyclers remains strong.

She stated that in 2022, China’s non-ferrous metals recycling sector had a total output of 16.55 million metric tons, representing growth of 5.3% year over year. Such growth has been strong over the past decade. In 2012, the sector’s output was 10.39 million metric tons.

Lin noted that Chinese imports of recycled non-ferrous materials have seen “restorative growth” of late. 

She indicated that in 2022, China imported 1.77 million metric tons of recycled copper and brass, up from 1.69 million metric tons in 2021 and just under 0.94 million metric tons in 2020. 

For comparison, China imported a total of 4.86 million metric tons of recycled copper and brass in 2012. The total started to decrease markedly starting in 2018.

“China hopes to deepen its cooperation with countries around the world,” Lin said through a translator.

Cai said that China’s new metal standards are requiring increased costs on the part of processors in the U.S. and elsewhere to hit purity thresholds, and that effort has become even more challenging amid tight labor markets over the past several years.

She also noted India and other countries are working to ramp up their own ability to process consumer-recycled material and feed manufacturers.

“Recycled metals are a global commodity,” she said. “They will go to the most efficient market.”

Transparency at sea

In the Federal Maritime Commission session, which took place April 18, Bentzel underscored the uncertainty and struggles the material shippers faced during the height of the pandemic. 

He said that in typical times, a container ship moving between Asia and the U.S. would move around eight shipments per year. But in late 2020 and into 2021, such vessels only moved one to two shipments over a 12-month window due to delays, container shortages and other complications.

He said the chaos ultimately amounted to trillions of dollars in economic loss and reverberations that are continuing to be felt.

“We have inflation in large part because we were having challenges with the movement of cargo,” he said.

In the wake of such turmoil, the Federal Maritime Commission was tasked with investigating the factors that led to different bottlenecks and backups. That led to a series of meetings in the first half of 2022 with stakeholders throughout the global shipping chain.

“What I saw was stunning,” Bentzel said of what he heard in those dialogues.

Bentzel’s resulting report, which is 65 pages long, calls for a comprehensive Maritime Data Transportation System to bring more real-time information on the status of vessels in transit, develop more harmonized information about cargo at different ports, and bring more transparency to the ocean shipping network in general.

The report and its recommendations will be open for public comment in the future. 

Bentzel acknowledged that shippers of recycled material were put in a particularly tight position amid the shipping unrest during the pandemic. With demand for vessel space high, carriers were able to at times prioritize the highest-value materials, leaving recycling stakeholders and others left waiting to move their loads.

“Usually bigger guys do better and that’s competition,” Bentzel said. “But I know your market and I know how it functions. I think it’s really important to maximize these resources and put them back into commerce. … Scrap metal and resource products don’t always get the same attention as agricultural products and others of higher value. I will continue to be vigilant for ISRI’s members.”

A version of this story appeared in Resource Recycling on April 24.

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