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China's recycling import crackdown sparks Hong Kong pile-ups

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What amounts to a ban on consignments of waste paper and other potentially recyclable material has led to backlogs and strikes and should prompt a re-think in the West, E&T is told.

Mountains of cardboard, old magazines, unsorted mixed paper and other items intended for recycling processing have been allowed to pile up around the main port of Hong Kong because of mainland China’s crackdown on contaminated imports.

The Chinese government’s programme to banish what it has termed “hazardous wastes” has already sparked a small-scale political crisis, with local media reporting on strike action by waste-paper exporters furious at the sudden implementation of new border restrictions.

They have grown used to moving recyclable material relatively seamlessly across Hong Kong’s border with mainland China, but the country’s national government has now instituted stricter checks, causing a waste bottleneck. Worldwide cardboard and paper prices are also said to have risen sharply because of the move, and even Donald Trump has been drawn into the crisis, as his administration felt forced to raise the issue with the Chinese.

Hong Kong is partially autonomous because of the ‘one country, two systems’ status accorded to it at the end of British rule there 20 years ago, but the city region functions as China’s import-export hub, meaning virtually all recycling imports from the West pass through its already overstretched port complex, the densely packed Kwai Tsing Container Terminals.

In addition to the foreign imports, some 80,000 tonnes of cardboard and paper intended for recycling are collected each month in Hong Kong itself. Much of this material is normally sent across the border to the mainland, but there is mild panic locally that this solution may now be unavailable.

One member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council has warned of the potential for a “chaotic situation” to develop that would involve Hong Kong becoming “surrounded by garbage” left stranded there because of mainland China’s refusal to absorb it.

The city region is regarded as far too small and densely populated to be able to properly process even all of its own recyclable waste internally, meaning it potentially faces being swamped.

Martin Liao cited “voices from the community expressing worries that if local recyclables cannot be exported to the mainland, it will create additional pressure on the already overloaded landfills in Hong Kong”.

Replying to him, Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing admitted that the Chinese government’s move would have “more impact on recyclers of waste paper and waste plastics in Hong Kong”, but he said efforts would be made to allow the local recycling industry to adapt to and cope with the changes.

“When illegal containers of imported recyclables are found, they will be returned to their place of origin immediately and [we will] notify the relevant foreign enforcement department for follow-up actions, as well as take enforcement actions against the illegal importers,” Kam-sing said.

He added: “As waste paper makes up the largest proportion of local recyclables, the development of a recycling industry capable of processing local waste paper is currently accorded priority.”

Repatriation of consignments of waste paper could have huge knock-on effects in Europe, where one Brussels-based recycling body has already warned of “turmoil” caused by the “abrupt change in market conditions”.

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cardboard are sent to China every month from the UK alone because this has historically been the cheapest means of disposing of it. Simon Ellin, chief executive of the British Recycling Association, has previously said he has serious concerns about whether the UK will now be able to cope if China continues with its plan to phase in what will amount to a complete ban on imports of various types of recyclables.

Britain’s Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently confessed he has no idea what the impact of China’s decision will be in the UK, but he expressed some sympathy with China’s position.

He told MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee: “The fact is, this decision having been taken, it is something with which we all have to deal with. We may lament it from one point of view. On the other hand, it may be an example of, as President Xi has shown, a higher degree of ambition in environmental standards.

“I might deprecate the manner in which the announcement was made and the speed with which the change is being brought about, but I can understand why President Xi and his team chose to make this decision.” 

China has previously complained about what it says is the highly polluted nature of some shipments being sent into the country from the West labelled – sometimes spuriously – as secondary raw materials. In recent years cases have come to light involving British recycling exports to Brazil that were found to be contaminated with rotting meat and dirty nappies, and it is thought similarly dirty material might have contributed to the issue with China.

Dr Christine Cole, a researcher in recycling strategies at Nottingham Trent University, last month told E&T China’s stance was explicable on the basis of the low quality of some Western recycling exports and the desire of the one-party state to be more self-sufficient.

She said: “If you look at it from China’s perspective, it is using this stuff as a substitute for virgin material, which is clean and which it knows the quality of.

“China wants this substitute, this recycled input, to be of an equal or similar quality. If it’s [contaminated], it’s not going to be. It’s just not what they want.”

She added that repatriated shipments of paper recycling might simply be incinerated or landfilled because paper mills in the UK and Europe would not be able to cope with the sheer volume of material, and because storing it would create a fire risk.

Steven Burns, a recycling expert who has worked in Hong Kong and is now commercial director of Scottish company Impact Solutions, said he hoped China’s position would serve as a wake-up call to Western governments.

Waste exporters are currently panicking because “their method of recycling has been to shove it in a container and ship it to somebody else to make it their problem,” he told E&T.

He said: “We don’t currently have the capacity, and we don’t have the technology, to process it. For years and years, the cheapest way to get rid of your waste has been to put it in containers and ship it overseas to the Third World and let them pick through it and sift out the value.”

Other Asian countries like the Philippines or Vietnam might be poised to now pick up the slack, he said, but he added that governments should realise their economic model for dealing with waste and recycling was unsustainable and was not good for the environment.

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