“China no longer wants to be world’s dumping ground for plastic waste”

The Peoples Republic is increasingly concerned over degradation to its environment. Exporters of plastic waste have to improve their recycling processes. 

Europe is a global leader in plastics recycling and in diverting plastics from landfills by using waste-to-energy programs that convert waste into power generation. Besides that, Europe, along with many other industrialized regions, recently got another major incentive to increase its recycling effectiveness for plastics – the message that China no longer wants to be the world’s dumping ground for plastic waste, according to research from IHS, the leading global source of critical information and insight.

As a result recyclers in Europe and other countries such as the U.S., Canada, Japan, Brazil, Mexico and Australia must improve their recycling technology processes as China, once the final destination for more than 70 per cent of the world’s plastic waste, strengthens its ‘green fencing’ regulations to restrict types of plastic waste materials it will accept. China is the world’s largest consumer of recycled plastics, but relies heavily on imports. According to IHS, it imported 10.3 billion metric tonnes in 2012.

Turned on its head

“China is increasingly concerned over degradation to its environment,” stresses Jim Glauser, specialty chemicals analyst at IHS Chemical and author of a report on plastics recycling. “The country has rejected shipments of waste deemed contaminated or unsuitable and officials are cracking down on hazardous materials that eventually go to Chinese landfills. Exporters of plastic waste have to improve their recycling processes, since fewer alternative markets exist to accept this waste, and frankly, much of the plastic still has significant value through reuse or energy recovery.” China’s Green Fencing initiative has turned the global recycling industry on its head. Glauser confirms: “Much of the plastic scraps once destined for China are now being exported elsewhere, and the global recycling equipment industry is working to expand its automation to improve waste sorting. Plastic manufacturers and producers of plastic goods are evaluating design guidelines to increase recyclability. One idea is the concept of resin markers which would help recyclers assess contents of plastic waste to makes sorting easier. China also has an opportunity to grow its domestic recycling.”

Huge discrepancies

Driven by densely populated areas, declining available landfill space, increasingly stringent regulatory policies and incentives to recycle plastic and other materials, Europe has long been a leader in waste recycling. In 2012, European plastics recycling and energy recovery reached 61.9 per cent, broken down that amounts to 26.3 per cent plastics recycling, 35.6 per cent energy recovery, with the remaining 38.1 per cent going to landfill. During 2006 to 2012, states IHS, the average amount of plastics post-consumer waste generated in Europe was 25 million metric tonnes.

However, there are huge discrepancies in Europe with regard to plastics recycling. Seven European Union (EU) countries, plus Norway and Switzerland, have introduced landfill bans for plastic waste, while another ten EU member states landfill more than 60 per cent of their plastic waste, according to the European Chemical Industry Council. Many Eastern European countries rely entirely on landfills to dispose of plastic waste. In 2012, according to IHS, 82 per cent of recycled plastics in Europe were plastic packaged products. The overall recovery of plastic packaging waste was more than 69 per cent in 2012. In total, approximately 34 per cent of plastic packaging waste was mechanically recycled, while 0.5 per cent went to feedstock recycling and nearly 35 per cent was used for energy recovery. These 5.4 million metric tonnes destined for energy recovery went to both incineration plants and as refuse-derived-fuel. In 2012, around 26 per cent of total post-consumer plastic waste in Europe was collected for mechanical recycling, 0.3 per cent went to feedstock recycling and nearly 36 per cent went for energy recovery. PlasticsEurope, an association of plastics manufacturers, is advocating for a ban on the landfilling of high-calorific plastic waste by 2020, which would prevent nearly ten million metric tonnes of plastic waste from going into a landfill each year (equates to about nine billion euros per year). Initially, the countries of key focus for the project would be the UK, Italy, Spain, France and Poland.

More laws must be passed

The European goal is to have zero plastics going into a landfill, which is an ambitious goal, but many policymakers are realizing that plastics and other calorific waste are too valuable to be sent to a landfill. Glauser: “Since the increasing global substitution of plastics for other types of materials will keep plastic waste in the public spotlight for many years to come, what will likely have to happen is that incentives must be made or more laws must be passed to stimulate higher quality recycling by extending collection and sorting services, and by keeping both recycling and energy recovery as viable alternatives to landfill.” For this to happen in Europe and elsewhere recycling processes must improve. “We have to improve the collection, sorting and processing of these plastic wastes from a cost and quality point of view,” says Glauser. “Plastics that cannot be sustainably recycled should be used for energy recovery rather than sent to a landfill. Part of the challenge for recyclers is that there is an unrelenting introduction of new plastic packaging materials with unique compositions tailored to provide superior performance characteristics for specific applications, which contributes to the increasing technical complexity of plastics recycling.”

Incineration viewed as a valid recycling option

Cost is also a big issue: “A big part of what facilitates recycling programs is the cost of producing of new materials versus recycled material costs. According to our Competitive Cost and Margin Analysis Service at IHS Chemical, in Europe producers face some of the highest linear low-density polyethylene product costs, so the cost analysis of recycled plastic versus virgin chemical is comparable if not in favor of recycling.”

“The U.S. relies heavily on landfill,” concludes Glauser. “Approximately 75 to 80 per cent of its plastic waste goes into landfills, while Japan disposes of more than half of its plastics waste by incineration. Western Europe uses a combination of both, including making the consumer pay for rubbish, as an incentive to recycle. Much of Western Europe and Japan view incineration as a valid recycling option.”


Photo: Ludwig Paul, Servicebetrieb Bau & Stadtgrün, Stadt Schweinfurt / abfallbild.de