Since the summer of 2017, one international issue has been at the forefront of North American recycling conversations: China’s ban on the import of certain recovered materials.
Chinese leaders formally announced their import intentions in a notice to the World Trade Organization in July of 2017, and the ban went into force at the start of 2018. But events going all the way back to the start of the country’s Green Fence customs crackdown in 2013 in many ways foreshadowed more recent moves.
To help stakeholders get a firm grasp on the Chinese import policies that are reshaping materials recovery around the planet, we’re offering a timeline of events related to the market phenomenon. This tool will be continuously updated as Chinese restrictions evolve and as stakeholders in the U.S. and elsewhere respond.
February 2013: Green Fence goes up
China launches intensive inspections of incoming loads of scrap material, a policy that is in fact an effort to enforce import regulations passed in 2006 and 2010. Though it is officially slated to end in November 2013, insiders note it could be restarted at any time.
November 2015: Another two-month customs crackdown
Chinese authorities frame this effort as one looking to ensure Chinese scrap processors are handling material according to the procedures laid out in their individual licenses. This initiative is seen as different from Green Fence because it inspects importer practices and not loads on the dock.
February 2017: National Sword announced
This Chinese action has a specific focus on halting smuggling operations, meaning those groups using illegal permits to import materials. Inspection scrutiny is directed toward bales of low grade plastics as well as paper with high moisture content.
February - March 2017: Tightening the screws
Enforcement action is heightened on criminal activity, particularly permit fraud inside China. Authorities arrest 90 suspects and confiscate 22,100 metric tons of foreign scrap material in the first weeks of National Sword enforcement.
Early-April 2017: Pivot back toward quality
Reports out of China indicate National Sword is also being used to assess overall material quality, not just the legality of permits used to import loads. Customs officials are believed to be checking every container entering the country at certain ports, which causes delays for material shippers.
Mid-April 2017: A ban on the way?
A meeting of top Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping (below), covers environmental reform possibilities. Delegates recommend “regulations should be enhanced to ‘significantly’ reduce the categories and volume of waste imports,” according to a state media report. The China Scrap Plastic Association’s Steve Wong, who was in attendance, says government officials suggested “a ban on solid waste imports by category.”
Late-April and Early-May 2017: Export unrest
Exporters describe import fees doubling over the course of a few weeks and extreme challenges in trying to move materials into China.
Late-May and Early-June 2017: Searching for answers
Officials from U.S. trade group the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) travel to China and confirm that the National Sword effort and the possible materials ban seem to be separate policies, even though they are becoming increasingly intertwined. ISRI also reports Chinese authorities are looking at the materials ban as a way to increase China’s domestic recovery industry.
Mid-June 2017: ‘Sword’ enforcement continues
Another large raid by Chinese authorities leads to 85,000 metric tons of material seized and members of smuggling groups arrested.
Mid-July 2017: Pointing out polluters
Yet another round of import enforcement begins in China, this time focused specifically on facilities without proper pollution control measures in place, according to reports out of China.
July 18, 2017: FYI at WTO
China confirms its intent to ban certain recyclables from import by filing a notice with the World Trade Organization. The announcement indicates the country will ban imports of recovered mixed paper; recycled PET, PE, PVC and PS; textiles; and vanadium slag by the end of 2017. Major exporters quickly begin analyzing the potential market disruption.
July 27, 2017: Specifying post-consumer materials
China elaborates on the ban, noting it will cover post-consumer plastics, unsorted mixed paper, textiles, select trace metals, and more. A policy document issued by the government also describes a larger plan to stop importing recovered materials that can instead be recovered domestically.
Late-July 2017: Impossible demands?
Chinese officials propose updates to national specifications known as Guobiao (GB) standards, which would set a maximum contamination level of 0.3 percent for imported loads of recyclables.
Mid-August 2017: Slowing bale movement
U.S. exporters report that their Chinese buyers have not received new import permits for any recyclable materials since May. This begins a dramatic slowing of shipments to China, including shipments of materials not named in the WTO ban filing.
Late-September 2017: Repercussions at the curb
The fallout from the import restrictions reaches municipal programs and materials recovery facilities (MRFs) in the U.S. Some companies report they are stockpiling materials without a downstream outlet. Others seek changes to contracts with local governments to minimize financial risk.
Early-October 2017: Landfilling recyclables
Without an alternative downstream outlet, companies in the Pacific Northwest turn to landfilling some recyclables. Some programs stop accepting certain mixed plastics and seek exemptions to landfill bans. In other cases, municipal programs hesitate to make major changes to the materials they accept, due to the efforts that would be needed to reintroduce those materials in the future.
Throughout October 2017: Word gets out
The impact of China’s regulatory changes hits the mainstream media in a big way, with CNN, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and countless local news outlets nationwide devoting space to the topic. The import restrictions receive attention from the U.S. World Trade Organization delegation and the U.S. Department of Commerce.
October 2017: Lines blur
As the import restrictions gain more media attention across the U.S., the linguistic line between National Sword and the import ban starts to evaporate. Although industry insiders and China experts maintained for months that the actions are separate from each other – one focused on smuggling and customs enforcement, the other on material quality – at this point the policies are described as one. “National Sword” becomes synonymous with the entire range of policies China has enacted slowing the flow of recyclables into the country.
Late-October 2017: Sortation response
MRF operators report they are pushing for quality, and doing so by hiring more workers, installing new equipment or slowing their sort lines.
November 2017: To the limit
China proposes – and later finalizes – an allowable limit of 0.5 percent contamination for most recyclables that are not named in the ban. Industry experts almost universally describe this as an unattainable level and therefore basically a ban on those materials as well.
December 2017: Swirl of perspectives
Chinese environmental regulators publicly reaffirm their commitment to the ban, and a top official says there will be a campaign similar to National Sword enacted each year through 2020. Meanwhile, after a visit to Asia, ISRI officials report that China is not ready to implement the ban and doesn’t understand the impact it will have.
January 2018: Chinese eye options
Plastics recycling operations in China announce they are looking to invest in processing infrastructure in the U.S. and elsewhere in order to stay in business. Many exporters of material to China also announce they are shifting shipments to Southeast Asia. In a related development, trade statistics show Vietnam, Malaysia and India all significantly increase scrap plastic imports from the U.S.
December 2017 to January 2018: Key permit details
The first five rounds of 2018 import permits are issued for Chinese importers. Plastic imports are extremely limited. Fiber is approved for import at much larger quantities, but the approved tonnages are consolidated among the largest fiber companies in China.
Late-January 2018: California reeling
CalRecycle, the state agency in charge of California materials diversion, devotes significant time to China’s import policies at a monthly meeting, and data and perspectives shared during the discussion make it clear significant impacts are being felt in the Golden State. “It’s a day-to-day battle of moving this material,” says one MRF operator. “We can only warehouse it so long and then it has to go to landfill.”
Feb. 1, 2018: Industry giants open up
The import issue takes center stage at Waste Management’s annual Sustainability Forum. WM recycling chief Brent Bell notes the hauler and MRF operator is making investments to garner cleaner material, and Myles Cohen of Pratt Recycling calls for a “moratorium on new items” added to curbside programs.