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Industry leaders' mixed reaction to China import crackdown

Three senior figures in the waste sector have said that China’s National Sword crackdown on imports of secondary materials will drive alternative markets at home and abroad and accelerate demand for new technologies.

Their observations came at the end of a panel session at RWM on ’Driving industrial demand for high-value secondary materials’.

A question from the audience asked for the panel’s views on China’s notification to the World Trade Organization that it would be imposing tighter inspection regimes and licensing rules for imports of secondary materials, notably mixed papers and post-consumer plastics grades.

The panel included: Ian Wakelin, chief executive, Biffa; David Palmer-Jones, chief executive, Suez UK; and Dan Cooke, Viridor’s director of regulatory affairs. They were asked whether China’s policies were a threat or an opportunity.

Palmer-Jones called them “another punch in the face for the recycling industry”, saying they were unfair. 

“China manufactures and packages the world’s goods and sends them out. Now they are saying they don’t want that packaging back. We base our entire recycling industry on the back of this circularity and sending back those containers for their new packaging.

“From October, mixed papers and post-consumer plastics will be prevented unless there are huge amounts [spent in the UK on sorting]. That won’t happen so it’s a big problem for the UK.”

He felt that any opportunities would come from greater plastics sorting at home and finding new domestic outlets for other lower grades.

”The question is can we use these materials at home for recycling and not sent abroad,” he asked.

Cooke said National Sword was a threat to the established practice of where the UK sent its materials.

“It also has to be a threat because it is an opportunity for some of that [lower-grade] material to fall down the waste hierarchy, or fall out of the established waste stream and be handled by the less reputable operators.

“It is an opportunity because we have to find new markets. We are already doing that. The question is how do we meet these ever higher quality standards that China or any other market are imposing.

“The next big thing being talked about in the industry is new technology, including the use of robotics. We are about to get stuck into some exciting technical developments looking into installing robotic technology on some recycling lines.

“In the longer term, if that makes us more self-sufficient and able to challenge ourselves and recycle material closer to home, then it may be an opportunity,” he added.

Wakelin concentrated on the market: “This for me will ultimately be a question of price. Chinese mills will want material. Shipping lines will want containers to go back full.

”The question is how high will the price go in China so they can keep the mills going, and will that cover the cost that we will have to incur here in the UK to increase the quality?

“Paper can almost certainly go into China – it just has to be of an incredibly high standard. It’s not impossible – it will just cost a lot of money. If the price of paper goes up in China because they need it, this will be fine.

“If any of that doesn’t happen, then it’s definitely a problem. But I would be an optimist and say this is a global market. Trading routes might change.

“Demand for paper is going up, you can’t substitute it for pulp, so it has to come from somewhere. The price will rise in the medium term. In the short term, it’s anybody’s guess.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • Peter Mansfield

    For years now we have seen the systematic dismantling of good quality raw material collection in the UK (with the exception of Wales & some of Scotland/Northern Ireland) & we are now going to pay the price. The interesting thing is that collecting material 'source segregated' is in fact cheaper! In my view it is time to wake up & change what we are doing. A few of us have been saying this for years. We can do this. We just need to wake up & reverse the trend. Come on everybody, let's rise to the challenge & get on with it. What an opportunity! We could be known for producing the best raw materials anywhere. Peter

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  • It's simply about the ££££s - it costs more to make compliant quality material i.e. run the MRF belt slower, add pickers and reject grossly contaminated inputs. The problem is that UK pickers cost more than Chinese workers and nobody wants to pay the landfill tax on the residue and rejects.

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