OCC bales for recycling on a truck bed.

China remains the largest buyer of U.S. fiber, importing 1.86 million short tons during the third quarter. | F Armstrong Photography/Shutterstock

Paper and plastic exports continue to trend lower than in previous years, even as shipments increase to certain countries, recent figures show.

The U.S. Census Bureau (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) recently published export numbers for September, allowing for an analysis of the third quarter of 2020.

Recycled paper exports down, pulp exports increase

The U.S. exported 4.26 million short tons of recovered fiber from July through September, down from 4.52 million short tons during the third quarter in 2019. Year-to-date recovered fiber exports through September totaled 11.61 million short tons, down from 14.29 million short tons during that period in 2019.

China remains the largest buyer of U.S. fiber, importing 1.86 million short tons during the third quarter, or 44% of all recovered fiber that left the U.S. China’s continued prominence as an export market is particularly notable, because the country is poised to ban imports of recovered fiber beginning in January.

Other top U.S. recovered fiber importers were India (427,000 short tons), Mexico (419,000), Vietnam (249,000), Taiwan (220,000), South Korea (213,000), Canada (198,000), Indonesia (148,000) and Thailand (133,000).

As China gears up to end recovered fiber imports, the U.S. recycled pulp export market is gaining steam, and it is largely concentrated on shipping material to China.

Year-to-date through September, the U.S. exported 284,000 short tons of recycled pulp, 89% of which went to China. The 2020 volume appears on track to eclipse the 295,000 short tons that were exported throughout 2019.

The growth in pulp exports will likely continue in the coming years – at least one new mill plans to export pulp almost entirely to China.

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Plastic exports to Malaysia on the rise again

U.S. scrap plastic exports in the third quarter of 2020 were up compared with the same period a year earlier. However, year-to-date exports are down in 2020.

U.S. exporters shipped 377 million pounds of scrap plastic during the third quarter, up from 343 million pounds during that period in 2019. Year to date, that brings U.S. scrap plastic exports to 1.01 billion pounds, down from 1.12 billion pounds for the first three quarters of 2019.

Canada was the largest importer of U.S. material, bringing in 88 million pounds during the third quarter. The next largest importers were Malaysia (76 million pounds), Mexico (44 million), Vietnam (32 million), Hong Kong (19 million), Taiwan (15 million), China (14 million), Thailand (14 million) and Indonesia (13 million).

Some of the import volumes represented a significant shift from the prior year, and even the prior months in 2020. Malaysia’s third-quarter U.S. plastic imports were nearly triple what they were in the third quarter of 2019. And it was Malaysia’s largest quarterly import volume since mid-2018, when the country began taking steps to restrict plastic imports.

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