Some Western companies see China’s upcoming crackdown on imported waste as an opportunity to upgrade their operations and use more recyclables in their own manufacturing, but challenges abound.

In a bid to improve its image and decrease environmental health hazards, China will stop accepting 24 kinds kind of waste by December 31, including difficult-to-recycle plastic types 3 to 7, electronics waste and mixed paper headed towards sorting and recycling facilities from around the world.

Every day, about 3,700 shipping containers of recyclables are shipped to the country, one of the world’s top destinations for recycling due to its cheap prices for shipping and sorting waste and low levels of regulation. As China clamps down on the amount of hazardous contamination in its recycling bales, many of these shipments now idle in Hong Kong ports.

“Recycling is a unique industry, but at the end of the day, it’s a manufacturing environment. When demand for a product decreases, you can’t stop the inbound flow,” said Brent Bell, president of Waste Management’s (WM) Recycle America program, in a webinar produced by the nonprofit Recycling Partnership.

U.S. companies are scrambling to increase recycling capacity since recycled PET, PE, PVC and PS plastics, vanadium slag, recovered mixed paper and textiles will be banned by 2018. Scrap and waste are the nation’s sixth-largest export to China. Meanwhile, low gas prices havespurred $185 billion in investments in U.S. petrochemical manufacturing.

In order to reduce the amount of waste going overseas, companies can turn to closed-loop recycling processes, which bring long-term benefits to organizations looking to save money on raw materials and lessen their environmental impact.

“In the U.S. market, you’ll see a lot of paper mills start investing in other companies,” Bell predicted.

And that’s a good thing, as domestic recycling can drive revenues of at least half a trillion dollars across multiple industries,  save cities more than $20 billion and reduce GHG emissions by more than 500 million tons of CO2, according to Closed Loop Partners.

Plastic, paper
Despite a dip in plastic bottle recycling in 2016, the five-year compounded annual growth rate for bottle recycling was a steady 2.1 percent, according to the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR).

For instance, exports of high-density polyethylene, or HDPE (plastic No. 2) rose nearly five percent from 184 million to 193 million pounds from 2015 to 2016; however, the domestic collection of polypropylene (plastic No. 5, affected by the ban) rose by 15.3 percent in 2016.

“Some U.S. recyclers are seeing these short-term challenges as opportunities to innovate and invest in our plastics recycling infrastructure,” said Steve Alexander, president of APR.

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