Opportunity Awaits on the Other Side of China’s Green Fence
There has been much speculation regarding the long-term impact of China’s Green Fence – an operation launched by the Chinese government to improve the quality of imported recyclables. What is certain is the demand/supply dynamic that once governed the global flow of materials has officially shifted and its impact has reverberated throughout the recycling value chain.
According to a recent report by Moore & Associates, commissioned by the Carton Council, an aggressive pursuit of manufacturing capacity in Asia coupled with lower labor costs weakened the demand for certain recovered materials in North America and increased their export to off-shore markets over the past decade, China in particular. Over a ten year span, Canadian paper and paperboard production was nearly cut in half dropping from approximately 20 million tonnes in 2002 to 11 million tonnes in 2012. Over the same period, Chinese production rose by 145%. With limited virgin resources, China was hungry for recovered materials to fuel their growing production capacity and North American as well as European exporters obliged. For instance, in 2012 the US exported 41% of its recovered paper, 71% of which was exported to China. With buyers so dependent on China, it is little wonder the recycling industry was shaken when the Green Fence was raised.
In spite of industry efforts to direct the flow of recovered cartons into its own dedicated grade (PSI Grade 52), some aseptic and gabletop cartons that Tetra Pak produces end up in mixed paper bales. As is the case for other material grades, scrutiny imposed by Green Fence requirements has resulted in recovered paper and paperboard being sent back to North America, signaling to all affected that further action is needed to ensure recovery efforts are not in vain. Green Fence has been a wake-up call. As China’s consumer culture comes of age and its collection infrastructure is expanded to manage its byproducts, their demand for North American recyclables is likely to diminish. Simply put, Chinese buyers can afford to be picky and seek out higher quality material.
So now what? For us, the Green Fence has reaffirmed our commitment to invest in processing infrastructure in North America to build a diversified portfolio of end markets minimizing risks of disruption in the future. Along with other members of the Carton Council, we have put a lot of effort into increasing access to carton recycling and encouraging people to use it. Continuity is crucial to maintaining consumer confidence in that system. We have also been reaching out to materials recovery facility operators and municipal recycling coordinators to promote proper sorting of cartons to maximize the value of the material.
We all have a role to play in improving the quality of recovered material and it is in our best interest to do so. The Green Fence has highlighted the need for investment and innovation in the North American recycling industry. Expanding domestic recycling infrastructure and investing strategically in sorting technologies that will improve the quality of recovered material will result in higher value uses for secondary materials and ultimately, fewer recyclables going to landfill. We have heard in many forums that more material, of better quality, is needed now. Public and private commitment to quality and investment is needed to make this a reality.
The Green Fence has already had a measurable impact on the quality of recovered material prepared for export. But perhaps more importantly, it has spurred a dialogue regarding the opportunities that result from better practices. It has contributed to the view of waste not as a burden to do away with but rather a valuable resource that fuels our economy that must be treated as such. A change in mindset along these lines will help to enhance recycling at every link in the chain. Care must now be taken to avoid stepping back into past practices by sending contaminated bales to the next low-cost market with lax quality standards. Instead, we need to work together to improve quality and foster diversified and responsible end markets to lift all boats.
Elisabeth Comere is the director of environment and government affairs for Tetra Pak in North America, the world leader in packaging and food processing solutions. She joined the company in 2006 as Environment Manager for Europe where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak’s environmental strategy. She joined the North American operations in 2010, focusing on advancing Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in the US and Canada, and she is active in various industry and customer packaging and sustainability initiatives. Elisabeth previously served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the environment department of the Food & Drink Industry group in Europe.
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