The Green Fence: Boon or Bane?
By John H. Skinner, Ph.D., Executive Director and CEO
The Green Fence, China’s recycled material inspection program, has sent shock waves through the world-wide recycling industry. In February, the Chinese government began to inspect every bale and container of recyclable material imported into the country and announced they would reject any shipment that contained 1.5 percent or more of contaminants. This policy has had a global impact on the shipments of recyclable material to China, especially affecting the recycling of paper and plastics. Shipments are subjected to a bale-by-bale and container-by-container inspection for contaminants such as metals, paper, glass, organics and other materials and are rejected if contaminants are above the allowable threshold. Inspection bottlenecks are causing shipments being delayed, higher unloading costs and containers being stacked up on loading docks for extended periods. There also are some situations where rejected loads are forced to be shipped back to the originating country at considerable additional expense.
The impact of Green Fence will be the main subject of a report to be issued at the 2013 World Congress of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), to be held in Vienna, Austria, on October 7-11. In a report titled, the Global Recycling Market for Plastic Scrap: a Story for One Player-China, ISWA finds that China receives 93 per cent of the plastic scrap that is shipped world-wide. By restricting the flow of recyclables into this dominant market, Green Fence could cause a flood of recyclables in other markets that could drive down the price paid for recyclable materials by mills and users around the world.
While in the short term Green Fence has been very disruptive, its longer term effect is less clear. Will Green Fence set a new international standard for allowable contamination levels in recyclable commodities and drive the utilization of optical and other sorting technologies to produce cleaner supplies? Will those recycling processors that can meet the more stringent contamination standards benefit from higher prices for their product in the new supply-constrained China market? If China is unable to satisfy its demand for imports of recyclables meeting its contamination specifications, will it expand domestic efforts to collect and process recyclables? Will exporters seek out intermediate processors and end-markets in other countries with more lenient contamination standards? Will Green Fence cause either an increase, or at least a reversal, in the decline of domestic markets for recyclables in countries currently exporting to China? Will there be an increase in the production of fuels from recyclable materials, such as paper and plastic, to access international and domestic energy markets?
While it would have been nice if China provided more advanced notice of this effort, are we really surprised that they want to keep our garbage out of their recycling feedstock? North American recycling programs need to be able to anticipate and respond to these types of issues if they are to be successful in marketing their commodities on the international scene. More than ever, solid waste managers need to make the transition from the waste disposal business to a resource management industry. They need to recognize that they are suppliers of raw materials and not only disposers of discarded wastes. They need to be able to respond to significant changes in a dynamic international market for recycled commodities, and continue to produce high quality and reliable supplies of recycled materials that meet end user’s requirements at competitive prices. They need to work to re-establish domestic markets and establish other markets and end uses for their materials so as not be held hostage to one dominant player. I believe that Green Fence sounds a clarion call to the North American solid waste and recycling industry and makes clear the transformation that is necessary for survival in the international recycling market place.