About five months ago, there was a bit of a hiccup in the world-wide recycling industry: China implemented what is known as “The Green Fence Policy.”
This policy has resulted in more rigorous scrutiny of all recyclable material coming into China — everything from paper to metals to plastics — which arrive in shipping containers from North America and Europe. China is now rejecting any shipments considered to have a contamination rate (items that cannot be recycled) of 1.5% or higher, and at a very hefty price. Rejected shipments travel back to North America or Europe, and are estimated to cost $10,000 to $18,000 per container!
Since many of our consumer goods are manufactured in China, a huge percentage of the world’s recycling market is in China.
Here is how the system works.
The material collected from your Blue Box is sent to a materials recovery facility (MRF) where materials are sorted and baled. These bales of recycling materials, whether they are bales of aluminum cans or newspaper, are considered a commodity and are sold to market to be turned into new materials.
The recycling market, just like any other market, consists of the buying and selling of commodities, with rates fluctuating on a monthly basis, depending on basic supply and demand and the overall market economy.
For example, due to the worldwide economic downturn in 2008/2009, less products were being manufactured, so less recyclable material was needed. This caused the average basket of goods (a common group of recyclable materials) price per tonne to drop. The basket of goods price per tonne has since increased.
Over a decade ago, China opened its doors to the world with an enthusiastic desire for recyclable materials, especially metals, plastics and paper fibre. This desire resulted in China receiving 93% of the plastic material shipped worldwide, thereby becoming the dominant market. As with the majority of various industries, China has the means to do it cheaper, so that’s where the business goes. This strong desire for recyclable material resulted in the Chinese industry being a little lax about the quality of materials coming into the country — they just wanted it all!
By shutting its doors and restricting the flow of imported recyclables, the enforcement of the Green Fence Policy quality regulations could bring about a number of consequences:
- Redirection of recyclables into other markets, which could potentially drive down commodity prices around the world.
- Processors being forced to diversify into more domestic and North American markets, as well as look for opportunities in India and Malaysia.
More positive impacts to China’s new policy may include:
- Decreasing the amount of contaminated materials available to China’s recycling “black market,” which has historically recycled materials with little regard for human or environmental health, thereby driving these illegal, unofficial-type processors out of business.
- Increasing China’s use of modern recycling facilities and boosting China’s overall environmental performance.
- Setting new international standards for acceptable contamination levels — which translates into cleaner materials required worldwide and more enforcement of proper sorting at the curb, as well as increased sorting technologies in the MRFs.
Halton Region’s MRF is operated by Emterra Environmental, which has long demonstrated its ability to effectively sort and market recyclable materials, applying strict quality controls to ensure commodities can seek the highest price internationally.
On the home front, we need you to sort your waste properly, ensuring you only place acceptable recycling materials in your Blue Box. If you reduce or stop Blue Box contamination at home, the MRF has less unacceptable waste to sort out, meaning the recycling bales are even cleaner and easier to market.
While we wait in anticipation to see the long term impacts of the Green Fence Policy, efforts are underway to re-establish domestic markets so as to not rely on one dominant market, and to encourage manufacturers to use only packaging that is easily recycled and marketed.
This begs the question — is the grass greener on the other side of the fence?