China's 'Green Fence' Policy Stalls US Trash Export Industry

For many, the act of recycling a plastic bottle or aluminum can puts these ubiquitous consumer items out of sight and out of mind. The things these objects are subjected to once they are processed by recycling have long been overlooked by consumers, but for many American exporters, recycling a bottle or a can is just the beginning of its profitable life. Known by its trade name, "scrap", America's recycled garbage is collected into bales and sold on to other countries. China has been a crucial buyer of this scrap for some time, but recent legislation from the Chinese government has created a flurry of activity in America as traders begin to worry that the scrap market may be closing down. China's new campaign, referred to by Chinese Customs as "Operation Green Fence" is an effort to drastically reduce the overwhelming influx of foreign garbage that China encounters through scrap shipments, which can contain approximately 20% garbage amidst the useful materials. According to an article by Peter Ford on the Christian Science Monitor:

Operation Green Fence, a campaign by Chinese customs to strictly enforce laws governing the import of waste, "could be a game changer," says Doug Kramer, president of Kramer Metals, an international scrap dealer in Los Angeles. "A lot of companies have used China as a dumping ground, getting rid of ... substandard scrap and trash," Mr. Kramer says.

As China's government seeks to raise environmental standards, he says, "I understand China's need to take a hard look" at its imports.

That hard look, involving stepped-up inspections of containers filled with scrap metal, paper, and plastic at Chinese ports and a merciless application of the rules, has intercepted more than 800,000 tons of illegal waste since the campaign began in February, according to the customs agency.

Now nervous traders are refusing to ship consignments of recyclables that might contain unacceptably large amounts of unrecyclable materials (anything from unwashed items to the wrong kind of plastic to random bits and pieces of garbage that get mixed in with the recyclables). And cities and towns across the US and Europe are finding there is no longer a ready market in China for their poorly sorted and often impure bales of plastics, paper, and other waste.

China's tighter import laws don't extend to all scrap; however, much scrap material is imported into China because the country has few resources of its own, and utilizes foreign recycled refuse to melt it down and reuse it. While on the surface this seems like a good way to prevent trash buildup, Ford writes that the methods by which these bales of recycled materials are used are often environmentally risky. Small, family-run workshops treat plastic without regulatory filters that would prevent the toxic byproducts of this process from entering the water supply, and unusable materials are burned or buried, creating an ecological crisis for China's environment. The Chinese government found it difficult to locate and deal with each individual recycling center that sprung up to take advantage of the lucrative trade in scrap, so it has resorted to cracking down on arriving imports.

Concerns have flared up amongst American exporters, as the reality becomes apparent: America cannot process all of the garbage it produces. 

Some businesses do not expect Chinese customs officials to go on being so zealous for long. Indeed, previous similar crusades have petered out in the past, and the General Administration of Customs in Beijing has announced that its current campaign to "reinforce inspection and prevention work in key areas" will end in November.

But well-placed observers do not think that the old lax habits will reassert themselves. "Before Green Fence, both companies and customs officials were unclear about the laws and regulations," says Wang Jiwei, secretary-general of the China Metals Recycling Association. "After the campaign, both sides will understand the laws better, and I think they will continue to be enforced."

Despite mounting concerns about the future of the scrap industry, Operation Green Fence could be a "blessing in disguise", encouraging America to come up with new methods of processing its garbage, or cutting back on it altogether. For more information on China's new policy and the reception it is receiving in America, please see the original article here.

Photo via Walter Parenteau on Flickr.

Discuss this Post