cardboard baled recycling
Imported scrap paper is among the recycled commodities no longer welcome in China in 2021.
Photo by Brian Taylor.

Update: Chinese government reaffirms scrap paper barrier

Proclamation reinstates intention to prohibit recovered fiber imports; separate Chinese agency approves some ferrous and stainless scrap imports.

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November 30, 2020

A Nov. 25 announcement posted to the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) website updates and reaffirms that nation’s intention to prohibit the import of recovered fiber, plastic scrap and other recyclable materials starting Jan. 1, 2021.

While buyers of high-grade nonferrous scrap in China are beginning to take advantage of a new “resource” designation for some materials formerly regulated as “waste,” recyclers and traders of every other material face 2020 being cut off from their former Chinese customers.

At the end of November, a separate agency in the People’s Republic of China has reportedly approved the reclassification of more than a dozen ferrous and stainless steel scrap grades for legal import in 2021 and beyond.

In 2015, China purchased more than 7 million metric tons of plastic scrap from the rest of the world, according to an International Scrap Trade Database formerly posted to the website of the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).

That same year, China purchased more than 29 million metric tons of recovered fiber from the rest of the world, becoming the end market of choice for a double-digit percentage of nonmetallic materials coming out of material recovery facilities (MRFs) in North America and Europe.

The latest MEE directive out of China, forwarded by the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recyclers (BIR) to its members, states the ministry “has stopped accepting and approving applications for import licenses for imported solid waste that can be used as raw materials.”

Recycling associations such as BIR and ISRI have attempted to communicate with the Chinese government and ask for a relabeling of scrap materials away from waste and toward a designation that recognizes they have a value and a role in the industrial economy.

The dialog has helped produce the new resource designation for high-grade, relatively pure forms of aluminum, copper and brass scrap, and now ferrous and stainless steel materials. Some recycled-content plastic pellets reportedly are close to attaining a similar status.

It remains unclear, however, how or whether such designations might yet allow some of that former 29 million tons of old corrugated containers (OCC) and other scrap paper grades to obtain a path to re-enter the People’s Republic of China.