U.S. recovered plastic exports during the first quarter were down by nearly half from a year ago. Paper shipments remained stronger due to ongoing Chinese demand and growing alternative markets.

The latest trade figures, published this month by the U.S. Department of Commerce, detail where recovered paper and plastic went in March, providing a snapshot of first-quarter shipments.

Plastic exports decline

U.S. exporters shipped 374 million pounds of scrap plastic from January through March. That’s almost half the amount exported during the same period in 2018, and it’s 67% less than the first quarter of 2017.

The decline was influenced largely by China, which no longer appears in the top 10 destinations of U.S. scrap plastics. Even though the country effectively banned scrap plastic from import in 2018, the small volume that entered the country still made it one of the largest importers of U.S. scrap plastic that year. But the weight has continued to drop off into 2019, and Chinese imports during the first quarter were down 98.6% from two years ago.

But the plastics decline was also driven by shifting markets beyond China. Although countries that recently increased their recovered fiber shipments have maintained those higher import volumes, many that brought in more plastic in 2018 have since enacted stringent policies reducing the imports.

After importing 30 million pounds of U.S. plastic in the first quarter of 2017, Malaysia increased its import volume to 159 million pounds during the same period in 2018. But the country’s first quarter 2019 imports are down to 23 million. That decrease corresponds with recent Malaysian government policies to restrict the trade after growing environmental concerns last year.

It was a similar story in Thailand, which went from 4 million pounds to 94 million pounds to 14 million pounds in the first quarters of 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively. And Vietnamese imports grew from 40 million pounds in the first quarter of 2017 to 69 million pounds during that period in 2018, before plummeting to 5 million pounds this year.

(Story continues below charts.)

Alternative paper buyers partially offset China impact

Recovered fiber exports totaled 4.7 million short tons from January through March this year. That’s down from 4.9 million in the first quarter of 2018 and 5.2 million in 2017. Although it’s a decrease, recovered fiber has not faced the same drastic export drops as plastic for a few key reasons, illustrated by the trade data.

For one, China continues to bring in substantial amounts of U.S. fiber. It was, by far, the largest buyer in the first quarter, bringing in nearly 1.5 million short tons, or about 31% of all the scrap paper leaving the U.S. Still, that’s significantly down from the past couple years – the 2019 figure is down more than 2 million tons from China’s first-quarter 2017 number.

Meanwhile, countries that have ramped up U.S. fiber purchases in the wake of the Chinese import restrictions mostly maintained or grew their import volumes at the start of 2019. In the first quarter, Indonesia nearly doubled its U.S. recovered fiber imports compared with that period last year (which itself saw triple the volume Indonesia brought in during the first quarter of 2017).

Additionally, Taiwan’s first quarter U.S. paper import volume is more than triple the 2018 figure; Thailand nearly doubled its U.S. fiber imports the first quarter of this year, compared with a year earlier; and South Korea, Mexico and Vietnam also saw modest increases.

Shipments to India, however, fell by 231,000 tons in the first quarter, compared with 2018.

March export specifics

U.S. companies exported 131.9 million pounds of scrap plastic in March. The top 10 importing countries were India (28.7 million pounds), Canada (28.3 million), Hong Kong (12.7 million), Mexico (7.7 million), South Korea (7.5 million), Malaysia (7.3 million), Indonesia (6 million), Taiwan (5.3 million), Turkey (4.9 million) and Thailand (3.6 million).

On the paper side, the U.S. exported 1.62 million short tons of recovered fiber in March. The largest importing countries during the month were China (502,000 short tons), India (319,000), Mexico (144,000), Indonesia (143,000), Canada (95,000), Taiwan (90,000), South Korea (85,000), Vietnam (60,000), Thailand (47,000) and Italy (22,000).

Photo credit: chenxueting/Shutterstock

More stories about exports