Councils have been warned to improve the quality of mixed papers collected for recycling or face falling revenues and other effects as China continues to crack down on waste imports.
Chinese customs authorities said earlier this year that they would be “severely cracking down on all illegal activities with regards to foreign waste”.
The move forms part of the National Sword policy, seen as a successor to 2013’s Operation Green Fence, in which tens of thousands of containers were rejected at ports.
President of the Beijing-based China Scrap Plastics Association recently warned that China could block imports of all recycled plastic within a decade.
Now attention has turned to paper, with Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin saying strict inspection regimes and tightening standards could squeeze the volume of certain grades let in to the country.
“The move to 100% inspection of recyclable material has happened in China,” Ellin told MRW. “They look through every container and rigorously apply their GB national standard, which means a maximum of 1.5% of material can be non-target, for example plastic within a paper batch.”
There have been persistent industry concerns that China could eventually ban certain grades of waste paper, but Ellin believes a tightening of the national standard to permit only 1% contamination of paper loads is more likely.
He added: “Overall we are going to see less volume of mixed paper going from the UK to China – that’s already happened because people are nervous about supplying it unless they are confident of the quality.”
Having a single container of substandard material rejected can cost $3,000 (£2,300) in quarantine, handling and shipping charges, according to Ellin, roughly the same amount the material is worth if sold.
“There has been a switch by some bigger producers to sending material to Europe because it feels safer,” he added.
All this has had an effect on prices. One tonne of mixed fibres for export was worth as little as £45 in early June, according to MRW’s indexes, compared with a minimum of £95 in mid-March.
“It is a buyer’s market,” says Ellin. “It means we have got to make continuous improvements in quality.
“Councils have to get their communications right with the public, and look at their contracts with waste management firms, to make sure they get the right material going into bins. Then they have a chance.”
A two-tier mixed paper market could even open up.