Blue Sky 2018 - China Continues to Impact the World

by | Apr 5, 2018

In August, we talked about China’s changing import regulations on recyclable materials. That was just the beginning of a major adjustment in how the world has to deal with this issue in the future. Chinese authorities, increasingly concerned over the growing amount of contaminated recyclable materials entering their country, launched aggressive enforcement of existing regulations on inspections in 2013.
(“China’s ‘Green Fence’ is having a dramatic economic impact on the plastics recycling market,” M-PASS, August 18, 2017).

Things continue to evolve. “Blue Sky 2018,” is the latest enforcement campaign announced by China’s General Administration of Customs. (Just keeping it interesting – the name “Blue Sky 2018” follows “The Green Fence” and “The National Sword,” changing as the intensity of the effort grows).

Jianan Yu/REUTERS

This newest action, running from March through December of this year, means full enforcement of earlier measures to ban 24 types of waste, including plastic and mixed papers. It goes further, setting a much higher standard for contamination levels. In addition, Chinese authorities are cracking down on false import documents. According to authorities, smugglers have been circumventing import regulations by illegally using another company’s import license. By November of 2017, these crackdowns had resulted in the arrest of “… 39 suspects and the seizure of 33,000 tonnes of plastic and mineral waste.” (SOURCE: South China Morning Post)

These changes have left Western countries scrambling to deal with a buildup of plastic and paper garbage while looking for new markets. Interestingly, the regulations are also having effects in Asia, as port cities like Hong Kong are seeing tons of rubbish pile up.

Hong Kong, partially autonomous because of the “one country, two systems” legal framework established when the city reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, functions as China’s import-export hub. Virtually all recycling imports from the West pass through its already overstretched port complex, the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals. (SOURCE: “China’s recycling import crackdown sparks Hong Kong pile-ups,” Engineering & Technology, Nov., 2017).

Hong Kong also produces its own large amounts of cardboard and paper, much of which is normally sent across the border to the mainland for recycling. Officials there fear that the area is far too small and densely populated to be able to properly process even all of its own recyclable waste. And since China refuses to take it, the pileups will leave them surrounded by garbage.

As Waste Dive 360’s Cole Rosengren wrote in a recent article:

“In the eight months since China announced import restrictions, the industry’s talking points
have essentially followed the five stages of grief. Most people now appear to be entering the
acceptance phase. Containers are getting rejected, import licenses are down and the new 0.5%
contamination standards are in effect as of this month. Figuring out what went wrong and
what comes next is now the top priority.”

There are no great short-term answers. Quick fixes include sending more recyclable materials to landfills, easing municipality recycling requirements, increasing taxes, and possible higher costs for haulers. Some recyclers are looking to export to other countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, but even together these places can’t fill the void left by China. None of these are long-term solutions.

“This is not a little disruption,” says Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute,
a research organization based in Southern California. “This is a big disruption to a bigger industry
than most people would think it is, because it’s sort of an invisible process. You put your stuf
out at the curb, and it goes away — nobody thinks about it as being a multi-billion industry in this country.”

(“Mountains of US recycling pile up as China restricts imports,” PRI, January 2018)

There is some good news. Challenges often provide the opportunity to increase knowledge, growth and effect change. Increasing consumer awareness, even in our daily activities, is an initial step.

  • The milkman is making a return, partly due to a renewed interest in using glass bottles instead of plastic.
  • The EU announced plans to make all plastic packaging across Europe recyclable or reusable by 2030.
  • British Prime Minister Teresa May called for more stringent rules on the use of plastics, particularly in supermarkets.
  • Recently, the Amsterdam branch of the Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza opened the world’s first plastic-free aisle, offering more than 700 products with no plastic wrapping. There are plans for a national roll out.
  • And to come full circle, Roy Tech Environ (a Chinese-owned company) is opening a plastics-recycling facility in Grant, Alabama. With regulations tightening, increasing the difficulty to ship unprocessed plastic scrap into China, the company decided to open a processing plant in the U.S. to ensure that its operations in Asia have enough material to meet their needs. (SOURCES: Recycling Today; WHNT News)

Hopefully, by now you are thinking: So what can I do?

Here are three pretty simple things that we can all do right now:

  • Rob Schmitz/NPR

    Decline plastic straws offered by servers at restaurants. There is a growing anti-straw activist movement amid talk of edible straws and return of the paper straw. The #stopsucking movement is not new, but it got a boost recently from Queen Elizabeth. She “stopped sucking,” according to one roguish headline, after seeing part of a film series presented by her friend David Attenborough. Greatly impacted by the scenes of plastic bottles and bags clogging oceans and killing marine life, she banned plastic straws and plastic materials from the royal estates.

  • Stop “wishful recycling” (We probably all practice this every once in a while when we just throw it in the bin, not 100% sure it can be recycled). I find myself thinking twice now when I approach my recycling container.
  • Make sure you take your own bags to the supermarket.

“Blue Sky 2018” has had a large effect on economies and jobs around the world as prices for recyclable materials have decreased with demand. It even affects the income of Hong Kong’s scrap and garbage pickers (often referred to as “cardboard grannies”), who make a living going shop to shop collecting scrap materials to recyclers.

But while we may be facing short-term economic losses, in the long-run, we can increase – and develop new – and sustainable practices.

If you want to know more ….

More reading on China and the continuing outcome of their actions:
There is a wealth of information and reporting on the China policies and their effects on the world and there are new stories every few days. We will keep you updated on any significant changes or responses. In in the meantime — If you want to read more about it …

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