In 2019, recovered fiber exports from the United States experienced their largest year-over-year decline on record. U.S. scrap plastic exports also continued a substantial fall.
The U.S. Census Bureau (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) on Feb. 5 released trade data for December 2019, providing the opportunity for full-year analysis of recycled material exports from U.S. ports.
Record decrease in recycled paper exports
Exports of recovered fiber commodities, including OCC, mixed paper, newsprint and more, totaled 18.1 million tons last year, down from 21 million tons in 2018 (all fiber figures in this story are in short tons).
The decrease of roughly 3 million tons, representing a drop of more than 13%, is the largest year-over-year tonnage decline in U.S. recycled paper export shipments since at least 2000, the earliest year for which figures are available.
In addition, fiber exports in 2019 were at their lowest overall volume since 2006.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese market drove the decrease. Buyers in the country brought in 2.5 million fewer tons of recovered fiber in 2019 than they did the year before.
The plummet in 2019 seems to represent the latest chapter in repercussions from China’s National Sword import policy.
Despite overseas import restrictions taking hold at the beginning of 2018, U.S. fiber exports actually increased from 2017 to 2018. That’s because non-China countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, imported more material to offset declines from China in 2018.
This trend did not repeat in 2019. Large south and Southeast Asian export markets, including India, Indonesia and South Korea, reduced fiber imports from the U.S. for the year. Many of those countries have rolled out import restrictions of their own over the last 18 months.
Looking at specific grades of exported fiber, reduced OCC exports contributed most to the U.S. export decline. OCC shipments decreased by 1.9 million tons in 2019, making up the bulk of the 3.1 million ton overall fiber export decrease.
By country, the largest export markets for U.S. fiber were China (importing 5.8 million tons), India (3.3 million), Mexico (1.5 million), Vietnam (1.2 million), South Korea (1.1 million), Taiwan (1.0 million), Indonesia (990,000), Canada (950,000), Thailand (580,000) and Malaysia (200,000).
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Ongoing export decline for plastics
Meanwhile, on the scrap plastics side, export volumes from the U.S. continued a steady decrease that has unfolded over the past few years, dropping in 2019 to their lowest total volume since 2002.
The U.S. exported 1.46 billion pounds of scrap plastic in 2019, down 38% from the 2.37 billion pounds exported the year before. The 2018 figure was down from 3.68 billion pounds in 2017. That means that from 2017 to 2019, U.S. exports of recycled plastic dropped just over 60%.
The decrease in 2019 was driven by major drops in exports to south and Southeast Asian countries, particularly Malaysia (from 450 million pounds in 2018 down to 133 million pounds in 2019), Thailand (from 236 million pounds down to 60 million pounds) and India (from 294 million pounds down to 188 million pounds).
Some of those decreases were spurred by high-profile import policy changes, such as India’s scrap plastic import ban that took hold over the summer.
The largest export markets for scrap plastics in 2019 were Canada (329 million pounds), India (188 million), Hong Kong (160 million), Malaysia (133 million), Mexico (79 million), Taiwan (76 million), South Korea (68 million), Turkey (64 million), Thailand (60 million) and Indonesia (54 million).
China, which until 2018 was by far the largest importer of U.S. scrap plastic, once again did not appear among the top 10 importers of the material in 2019.
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