How China’s Green Fence is Affecting Recycling in the U.S.

China’s Green Fence Affecting Recycling Industry in the US

Since China’s “Operation Green Fence” was enacted earlier this year, China has rejected 68,000 tons (metric 61,700 tonnes) of waste. Some speculated that the initiative would blow over in a couple of months because “…Chinese manufacturers, who really do need the plastic resin and other raw materials, will pressure the government to relax its restrictions on trash…,” but Operation Green Fence is alive and well.

Although the Green Fence Initiative blocks contaminated recyclables from entering the country —a positive element — this effort to raise the standards of recycled materials entering China is seriously affecting recycling efforts here in the U.S. and around the world.

Since 2007, one of the top U.S. exports to China has been “recyclables”, including paper, plastic bottles, soda cans….and everything else people throw in their recycling bin, thinking it could be, or should be, recyclable.  Due to the continuing increase in single stream collection programs in place around the U.S., “clean” recyclables are becoming harder to come by. Because of our long-term dependence on exporting our recyclables to China, we in the U.S. do not have the facilities readily available to adequately sort and clean materials so that they’re up to China’s standards. As a result of China’s Green Fence, U.S. recycling centers that once accepted scrap plastic for recycling are being forced to send it to American landfills.

One recycling center in Thurston County, WA, stated that starting October 1st, they will no longer be accepting plastic from commercial customers. This facility, which currently has a public drop-off site for plastic film, attributes the market problems to China’s Green Fence.

The UK Weighs In

It’s not only the U.S. that is being affected. In the United Kingdom, China’s Green Fence Policy has severely limited the opportunity to export used plastics to China for recycling and this has created a build up of waste materials in the UK supply chain.

According to the BPFRG, China provided a market for an estimated 920,000 tons of plastic in 2010 and this, in turn, led to the UK not only exporting resources, but also sending away jobs which could have easily been kept and expanded at home within its own recycling and manufacturing sectors.

Meanwhile in China

As China’s Operation Green Fence continues, plastic waste piles up in Tuen Mun. More than 100,000 tonnes have accumulated across the New Territories since the mainland cracked down on imports of unprocessed waste. For every ton of reusable plastic, China has received many more tons of random trash, some of it toxic.

According to an article from the South China Morning Post, for the most part, Hong Kong’s plastic recycling business was “nothing more than waste smuggling to the mainland” and those operations came to an abrupt halt in March when Chinese customs officials launched Operation Green Fence.

French trader Michel Jospe, owner of Methong Plastics, has a positive outlook about the Green Fence. Jospe muses, “Operation [Green Fence] is a good opportunity for Hong Kong to come up with new ideas and outlets for the waste. Such outlets exist. It’s just that the Hong Kong government didn’t think carefully about the situation.”

Future Projections and Solutions

According to recycling firm owner Lee Hing-tak, “I have a mainland plant [in Zhaoqing, Guangdong province] that can turn used plastic bottles into fibre for making clothes. This is just one kind of a production line. . . . There are seven kinds of common household plastic waste. Only four types, including those used for drink bottles and shampoo containers, are produced in quantities to make recycling economically viable.”

With this in mind, it seems that from the massive amount of plastics thrown into the same bin for single stream recycling, only a small amount will get recycled — the rest will go to landfills. So what is the solution?

One prospect is to invest in the sorting and cleaning technology needed to recycle a larger amount of plastic. This could be used domestically, keeping jobs and profits here in the US, or to export to China and get the materials past the Green Fence.

Another possible outcome of the Green Fence is that it will spur the plastic-to-fuel industry here in the US or in other countries. It’s possible that a surge in domestic plastic-t0-fuel facilities could break our dependence on foreign oil. The question is, is this process environmentally friendly? “Maybe the sequestration of carbon into a plastic bottle dumped in a landfill is better than converting it to liquid fuels and releasing, mobilizing a whole lot of carbon,” says Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Although this report from October 2012 states that because the process is so new, there is not enough data to determine whether or not it’s environmentally friendly, Green Earth Innovations (GEI) recently staked claim that its Indian patented technology for extraction of fuel from plastic waste, is ready for commercialization. 

According to an article in the India Times, a promoter of GEI, Manoj Sharma, stated, “We have reversed the chemistry to extract fuel from plastics. Plastic is a by-product of hydrocarbon, our innovation has reversed the process — thermal de-polymerisation — to manufacture oil from plastic using a catalyst.” Sharma also states,”Using this low cost technology all grades of plastic can be used to extract fuel, barring PVC and PET bottles.” The company is now offering technology on franchise model, claiming it to be an environment-friendly solution for the disposal of plastic.

Whether it be establishing a more rigorous, nationwide recycling system (preferably dual stream to gain as much passable material as possible), investing in sorting and cleaning technology or investing in environmentally friendly plastic-to-fuel facilities, it can be concluded that the era of shipping off our trash is coming to an end and we need to deal with it in a more organized way.

 image via See-ming Lee on Flickr