China’s Ban on Scrap Imports a Boon to US Recycling Plants

May 20, 2019 Updated: May 20, 2019

ALBANY, N.Y.—The halt on China’s imports of wastepaper and plastic that has disrupted U.S. recycling programs also had spurred investment in U.S. plants that process recyclables.

U.S. paper mills are expanding capacity to take advantage of a glut of cheap scrap. Some facilities that previously exported plastic or metal to China have retooled so they can process it themselves.

And in a twist, the investors include Chinese companies that are still interested in having access to wastepaper or flattened bottles as raw material for manufacturing.

“It’s a very good moment for recycling in the United States,” said Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington-based organization that helps cities improve recycling programs.

China, which had long been the world’s largest destination for paper, plastic, and other recyclables, phased in import restrictions in January 2018.

Global scrap prices plummeted, prompting waste-hauling companies to pass the cost of sorting and baling recyclables on to municipalities. With no market for the wastepaper and plastic in their blue bins, some communities scaled back or suspended curbside recycling programs.

New domestic markets offer a glimmer of hope.

About $1 billion in investment in U.S. paper processing plants has been announced in the past six months, according to Dylan de Thomas, a vice president at The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit organization that tracks and works with the industry.

Hong Kong-based Nine Dragons, one of the world’s largest producers of cardboard boxes, has invested $500 million over the past year to buy and expand or restart production at paper mills in Maine, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

In addition to making paper from wood fiber, the mills will add production lines turning more than a million tons of scrap into pulp to make boxes, said Brian Boland, vice president of government affairs and corporate initiatives for ND Paper, Nine Dragons’ U.S. affiliate.

“The paper industry has been in contraction since the early 2000s,” Boland said. “To see this kind of change is frankly amazing. Even though it’s a Chinese-owned company, it’s creating U.S. jobs and revitalizing communities like Old Town, Maine, where the old mill was shuttered.”

The Northeast Recycling Council said in a report last fall that 17 North American paper mills had announced increased capacity to handle recyclable paper since the Chinese cutoff.

Plastics also has a lot of capacity coming online, de Thomas said, noting new or expanded plants in Texas, Pennsylvania, California, and North Carolina that turn recycled plastic bottles into new bottles.

Chinese companies are investing in plastic and scrap metal recycling plants in Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina to make feedstocks for manufacturers in China, he said.

By Mary Esch.

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