Waste not wanted: scrap paper piles up under China ban on imports
Beijing’s crackdown on ‘foreign garbage’ felt across the recycling industry, from elderly cardboard collectors in Hong Kong to the world’s big shipping lines
Huge mountains of old newspapers, cardboard and office scrap paper are piling up on Hong Kong’s docks and its waste-paper collection sites are at bursting point. A flotilla of cargo ships laden with paper meant for recycling has been stuck for weeks in local waters.
The city’s system for dealing with its paper waste has been failing since July when Beijing imposed a ban on imports of 24 types of rubbish, as part of a campaign against “foreign garbage” and environmental pollution, including unsorted scrap paper.
Each day in Hong Kong, 2,500 tonnes of fresh paper waste is piling up with no place to go, according to Jacky Lau, director of Hong Kong’s main recycling business association.
“We started our business 50 years ago and we have never experienced such a crisis,” Lau said, saying the industry was losing HK$2.7 million (US$346,000) daily.
Traditional suppliers of waste paper to China include Europe, the United States, Hong Kong, Japan and Southeast Asia, according to industry associations.
While China indicates it will impose an outright ban on mixed waste paper, a final decision is not expected until November. For now, authorities have tightened requirements on waste paper to markedly cut back on allowed levels of contaminants, making it difficult for many recyclers to meet.
As a result of the impasse, the manager of a major paper mill in southern China said the price of finished paper had doubled to 6,000 yuan (US$902) per tonne from 3,000 yuan as supplies of the raw material shrank.
That is hurting everyone from e-commerce sites to exporters.
Alibaba’s November 11 Singles’ Day online shopping festival, which posted more than 120 billion yuan in sales last year, is heavily reliant on such packaging.
Britain’s Environmental Services Association said the restrictions would ripple beyond China.
“Online retailers like Amazon still need cardboard boxes and most comes from China,” said Jakob Rindegren, the recycling policy adviser of the British association.
One corrugated box retailer on the online shopping site Taobao said the price of cardboard boxes had nearly doubled since the end of August to 8.8 yuan each.
Thirty-one billion packages were delivered in China last year, according to another online retailer JD.com. The company said it was seeking to markedly cut back on cardboard usage on environmental grounds.
Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, did not immediately respond with a comment.
The bans, which also include other forms of waste material – plastic, tyres and glass – have also had a wider impact on waste shipments to mainland China.
Maersk Line, the world’s largest shipper of containers, said it had already seen a drop in waste cargo into the mainland.
“While it’s too early to understand the full impact, we do see an impact on volumes of waste imports into China. However we expect some measure of rebound as exporters adapt to the new regulations,” a Maersk spokeswoman in Hong Kong said.
Maersk declined to give further details on its waste shipments to the mainland.
In a customer notice on Tuesday, German container shipper Hapag-Lloyd, the world’s fifth-largest container line, said it would stop accepting cargoes of scrap plastic and waste paper from Europe, the US and Asia that are due to arrive at Chinese ports from next year. Hapag-Lloyd did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
For now, as Hong Kong’s paper mountains grow daily, many of the city’s invariably elderly paper collectors say they have seen a vital source of income halve in some cases, with many recyclers no longer accepting scrap as the uncertainty lingers.
“There’s not much more I can do if I don’t have enough income,” a woman in her 80s lugging a cart stacked with cardboard in Sham Shui Po. “I just have to save here and there to be able to pay my rent ... It’s very tough.”
China, the world’s largest paper recycler, produced some 63.3 million tonnes of waste paper pulp last year, according to the China Paper Association (CPA), with some 24 per cent produced from imported waste paper.
Cheung Yan, chairwoman of Nine Dragons Paper, one of the country’s biggest packaging and paper producers, said the price of recycled paper “wouldn’t be cheap” in the long term.
She did not give specifics except to say labour costs had also risen, and that the firm would increase the collection of waste paper within China given the slowdown in waste imports.
The ESA in Britain said around 1.1 million tonnes a year of mixed paper – newspaper, magazines and cardboard – was exported to China out of the 8 million tonnes of waste paper collected in Britain. Exporters have been seeking new markets such as Europe and Southeast Asia given the uncertainty, according to the ESA’s Rindegren.
“In terms of cracking down on polluting activities we support China but the way it has done it appears quite heavy-handed. Some companies are export arms of Chinese paper mills and they will be hit as well,” he said.
In Japan, a waste paper wholesaler union in the Kanto region encompassing Tokyo, confirmed that it had skipped September’s export contract of waste paper to China, the first time that had happened in several years, because the Chinese were holding off buying.