In Europe, electronics recyclers recover about 2.2 million tons of plastic and metal annually and send about 15 to 20 percent of that to China, according to Norbert Zonnefeld, executive secretary of the European Electronics Recyclers Association. Its 40 member companies include electronics manufacturers and copper smelters.
European recyclers welcome China's tighter enforcement because it will help them comply with European Union rules on tracking waste and ensuring it is properly handled, said Zonnefeld. Still, he said, some traders have run into trouble.
"I have heard material has been sent back," said Zonnefeld. "Of course, they should have known. They were just gambling."
The United States relies even more heavily on China to recycle its waste.
Americans threw away 32 million tons of plastic in the form of packaging, appliances, plates and cups last year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. About 1.1 million tons was collected for recycling.
About half of plastic soft drink and water bottles collected in the United States for recycling are sent to China, according to Kim Holmes, director of recycling for the Society of the Plastics Industry in Washington. She said nearly all plastic from U.S. electronics waste is exported to Asia.
"The export market is a major component of the broader U.S. recycling industry," said Holmes in an email.
China allows waste shipments to contain no more than 1 percent unrelated material. But Customs officials say some were found to be up to 40 percent unrecyclable trash.
"Some unscrupulous traders, in order to maximize profit, smuggle medical and other waste inside shipments, a direct threat to everyone's health," said a Shanghai Customs Bureau statement in April.
Despite a ban on imports of used tires, inspectors intercepted a 115-ton shipment of them in March, the bureau said. They were labeled "recycled rubber bands."
ARCA Advanced Processing dismantles about 600,000 refrigerators a year and recovers 80 tons of plastic a week, plus copper, aluminum and other metals, according to Conners. He said those still are sold to traders who ship much of it to China, but the number who can satisfy Beijing's requirements to separate and clean waste has plunged.
"There used to be guys who would come to our facility probably once a week to buy our plastic to take back to China," he said. "That has gone down to where I have two vendors who still are able to do business to get it into China."
In a reflection of more stringent controls, customs data show Chinese imports of waste plastic fell 11.3 percent in the first half of this year compared with a year earlier to 3.5 million tons after soaring over the past decade.
MBA Polymer's facility in the southern city of Guangzhou, in the heart of China's manufacturing industry, can process 40,000 tons of plastic a year, according to Biddle. It transforms waste into pellets to be used as raw material for new products. Buyers include Chinese manufacturers that work for companies such as computer maker Hewlett-Packard Co. and consumer electronics giant Philips NV.
Biddle said he welcomes Green Fence despite the disruption of imports because higher standards will favor more responsible companies.
"We've had to compete for raw materials with people who treat the materials not in ways that protect workers or the environment," Biddle said by phone from California. "I see China moving toward encouraging companies like ours to develop."
Conners said that by raising the cost of dealing with China, Green Fence might make it profitable for more Western companies to conduct the whole recycling process themselves. He said his company is looking at possible ventures to do that with partners.
"The advantage China had has been reduced considerably. That advantage was low-cost processing," he said. "This is going to spur investment in the United States to process materials here."
ARCA Advanced Processing: www.arcaap.com
MBA Polymers: www.mbapolymers.com/home
European Electronics Recyclers Association: www.eera-recyclers.com
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