Mainland waste import curbs may sink Hong Kong recyclers

Last month, China notified the World Trade Organisation that it will stop importing 24 types of solid waste, including plastics, unsorted paper, steel mill slag and scrap fabric materials, within this year. This came as the government claimed imported recyclables have polluted the environment and damaged public health on the mainland.


The move is nothing new. Under President Xi Jinping (習近平), China started to curb waste imports in 2013, when it launched Operation Green Fence. Early this year, an even stricter policy was launched to further block imports of contaminated recyclables.


The wealthier mainland China gets, the less it is willing to allow its businesses to earn money by harming the environment and the country’s international image.


Hong Kong has been playing a waste trader role for decades, buying scrap material from overseas and selling it to mainland importers. In the first eight months of 2016, Hong Kong was the largest exporter of used plastic to mainland China, accounting for 26.7 per cent of the total. Hong Kong certainly did not generate that much waste locally – most of the vast quantity we sent across the border was imported by our waste traders from overseas.


Since the launch of Operation Green Fence, mainland authorities have not allowed unprocessed plastic bottles to enter the country. If recyclers wish to import used plastic bottles, these need to be shredded into flakes and washed in order to pass the tightened rules.


As a result, recyclers’ demand for plastic has fallen. Several large property management companies report that recyclers collecting material from their properties were reluctant to take plastic scrap, and wanted only paper and metals. Some residential estates simply covered the plastic recycling bins to stop taking plastic scraps sorted by tenants. Complaints were received that some cleaning staff mixed the sorted plastic with general garbage and tossed them into refuse trucks.


The stricter import policy will also affect small-scale recycling shops more than the big firms. There are an estimated 400 small-scale recycling shops in Hong Kong. These shops usually hang up a sign telling people the scrap rebate levels they offer. However, in recent years, many recycling shops do not indicate any value for plastic. They even suggested that I take my used plastic bottles to a nearby government-funded recycling facility.


These small-scale shops have created a virtual community network to help individuals and property management companies implement efficient recycling. If such a network did not exist, large-scale recyclers would spend more time and money going around each estate to collect material.


This is a serious waste crisis that will impact us within a few months. Hong Kong discards 206 tonnes of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic and non-PET plastic bottles every day. The recycling rate of PET bottles dropped from 14 per cent in 2014 to 7.6 per cent in 2015.


Regrettably, China’s tightened import policy did not trigger vigorous debate by political parties or our government. Environment secretary Wong Kam-sing’s response to the media on the topic did not ease my concern that our government has no plan to resolve the crisis. The destructive power of this import policy change should not be underestimated. It could well sink our waste recycling industry and fill our landfills within the term of this administration.


I suggest that Wong communicate with mainland authorities to explore whether a channel for Hong Kong could be established to only allow entry of processed recyclables, including plastic free from contamination.


Edwin Lau Che-feng is executive director of The Green Earth.


3 August 2017 SCMP