Recyclers all over the world know that China has been a major buyer of secondary materials. China’s Professor Yangzu Wang of the Ministry of Environmental Protection assured an audience of recyclers at the Electronics Recycling Asia conference in November that those materials have been greatly appreciated.
Wang said in the second half of the 20th century, the United States had 5 percent of the world’s population but consumed anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of the world’s resources, depending on the particular commodity.
In the new century, China has grown rapidly as a manufacturer and as a consumer of raw materials. “We manufacture the most but only have 50 percent of the raw materials we need,” Wang commented. “We need to import natural gas, copper and so on.”
These two historical factors have come together in the form of the U.S. shipping high volumes of obsolete and scrap materials to China, where they can be used as raw materials.
“In the past 20 years, 360 million tons of recyclable materials have been imported into China,” said Wang, including 180 million tons of scrap paper, 70 million tons of metal and 50 million tons or plastic scrap.
These scrap resources have been critical in many ways, said Wang, “providing jobs to 1 million people and saving 80 percent of the energy” that would have been consumed using primary materials. The scrap resources that have poured into China have provided “positive social, economic and environmental benefits” the Ministry of Environmental Protection official stated.
Wang said China is by no means done importing scrap materials, and may have room to expand its imports in such areas as ferrous scrap for steelmaking. He remarked that Chinese leaders are concerned that China’s steelmakers use scrap as only 14 percent of their steelmaking feedstock, while steelmakers in European and North American nations use from 58 percent to 83 percent scrap. China’s 14 percent rate amounted to 80 million tons of ferrous scrap melted in 2011, according to Wang, who added that China “plans to reach 200 million tons [melted] in the future.”
Among the challenges facing scrap importers are customs regulations differences between the European Union, with 70 different types of scrap materials listed on manifests, and China, where only about 20 types of scrap have approval to enter the country.
Even after all scrap materials have done for China, Wang said there are still “prejudices” in the minds of some people there. “Some people believe importing recyclables is importing garbage, [but] just 0.09 percent in 2011 of shipped materials was not acceptable. It is not importing garbage—this is wrong,” Wang said.
The Electronics Recycling Asia conference, organized by ICM AG, is being held Nov. 13-16 in Guangzhou, China.