23 October 2014
Recycling continues to be a major concern for NGOs, governments, and consumers—especially the huge and growing population of environmentally conscious Gen Y and Z consumers. And all these stakeholders want to see the same thing: less material going to landfills and more material being recycled.

China’s Green Fence policy, implemented early in 2014, was designed to accomplish just that by keeping contaminated recycling materials from crossing Chinese borders. The law forbids buying recyclable exports with anything higher than 1.5 percent contamination. In this context, contamination could refer to things like a bale of paper with small amounts of plastic and wood mixed in or a cardboard carton with leftover cream inside.

Before the Green Fence law, around a quarter of the bottles, cans and paper the U.S. was sending to China was getting mixed in with too much food and trash, notes Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute in Los Angeles. These bottles, cans and cardboard could not be recycled—and mostly ended up in Chinese landfill.

The new law is intended to change that and some U.S. recyclers who sell their recyclables to China have been feeling the pain when their shipments are turned back at China’s border. "They would reject shipments at ports if they were too contaminated. So [for U.S. recyclers] that meant they had paid money and put materials on a ship, the materials came back to them, which meant that they didn’t receive the revenue from selling the scrap materials," notes Collins.

So the new law has sent an economic tidal wave through the recycling industry.

Green Fence represents China’s commitment to environmental awareness—and since China is the largest global user of recyclables, the Green Fence initiative is expected to have a major impact on the recycling business in the U.S., which provides a huge share of China’s imported recyclables.

These points from the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), as reported on Waste360.com, show a major portion of the U.S. recycling materials output is ending up in China:
  • In scrap commodities, China accounts for 42 percent of all U.S. exports—at a value of about $9.5 billion.
  • In 2012, China bought 68 percent of the U.S.’s exports of aluminum scrap, 70 percent of its recovered paper and 58 percent of its plastics scrap. 
  • China receives 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste exports.
With recyclable producers this deeply invested in the Chinese market, it is little wonder they are concerned by the Green Fence initiative.

Over a 10-year span, "an aggressive pursuit of manufacturing capacity in China weakened the demand for certain recovered materials in North America," points out Elisabeth Comere, Tetra Pak’s director of Environmental and Government Affairs, citing a recent report by Moore & Associates commissioned by the Carton Council, a group of carton manufacturers united to deliver long term solutions that divert valuable cartons from the landfill.

During this period, China was so hungry for recovered materials to fuel its growing production capacity that it bought great quantities from U.S. and European vendors, writes Comere in Environmental Leader. In 2012, for example, "the U.S. exported 41 percent of its recovered paper, 71 percent of which was exported to China."

But Green Fence lowers that consumption rate. One exporter reports that since Green Fence became policy, "8 percent of the 9,000 tons it formerly shipped to China every month now can’t go." Brokers complain that one contaminated bale can cause an entire shipment to be rejected. This kind of event can put recycling companies, typically operating on a thin profit margin to begin with, out of business.
Still, as Comere maintains in her column, it is clearly in the best interests of entities on both sides of the Green Fence to accept a role in improving the quality of recovered material. One solution she offers is to invest "strategically in sorting technologies…improve the quality of recovered material and result in…fewer recyclables going to landfill."

Jeff Powell, publisher of Resource Recycling magazine, agrees. "We used to send garbage because it was the cheapest thing to do," he says, "and because the Chinese would accept it."

"The new Chinese policy is going to force U.S. recyclers either to sort recyclables more carefully," adds the Christian Science Monitor, "or to recycle more material in the U.S., or both."

And that means that more recycled product will end up where it is supposed to be, and less of it will get thrown away or burned, either in the U.S. or in China. Because in the end, if the idea is to keep trash out of the landfill, it doesn’t much matter whether that landfill is in China or the U.S.

"Environmentalists love Green Fence," adds Powell.

To learn more about how the Green Fence is affecting recycling initiatives around the world, see the full text of Comere’s "Opportunity Awaits on the Other Side of China’s Green Fence."

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