What Hong Kong can learn from the waste paper pile-up crisis

September 19, 2017 10:44
Hong Kong produces 80,000 tons of waste paper each month. Photo: RTHK

Hong Kong saw tens of thousands of tons of waste paper pile up at the city's docks last weekend, with the streets also affected as collection activities of the item almost ground to a halt. The crisis arose as many exporters were unable to ship the material due to tightened policies in China on waste imports.

Mainland authorities introduced new rules after the State Council announced in July that it would curb imports of 24 types of waste, including waste plastic and unsorted scrap paper, as part of a campaign against "foreign garbage".

China has been importing massive amounts of waste paper, plastics and electronic waste material in recent years for its recycling industry. It's estimated that the nation recycled up to 590.3 billion yuan worth of ten major items last year, with more than one third of the material brought in from overseas.

As for waste paper alone, the recycling market for the item is said to have reached 74.5 billion yuan, making it the fourth largest material for such activity after scrap steel, scrap non-ferrous metals, and waste plastics.

While the recycling business has been lucrative, the activity has been blamed for causing serious environmental pollution, including contamination of underground water. This has prompted the State Council to launch a campaign against "foreign garbage".

Among the new requirements, all waste plastics need to be processed before being exported to China. Also, waste paper should be sorted into newspaper, cardboard and office paper in the first place, and the percentage of mixed waste paper should be capped below 0.3 percent.

Hong Kong paper exporters are also required to obey these rules.

Several mainland Chinese buyers failed to obtain import permits since the middle of this month. As this affected shipments, Hong Kong paper exporters began a week-long strike since last Friday, causing a so-called paper jam in the city.

The crisis may worsen if the paper recycling industry comes to a standstill. It’s estimated that around 300,000 metric tons of solid waste are being dumped at landfill sites each month. The demand for landfill space may jump almost 30 percent if the city has to deal with another 80,000 tons of waste paper each month.

Following complaints from local exporters, the Hong Kong government is reported to have taken up the issue with mainland authorities. Hopefully, the central government might offer some leeway to Hong Kong paper exporters, or at least grant certain quota to shippers from the territory.

Taking heart from the Hong Kong government's pledge to help resolve the matter, players involved in waste recycling industry have decided to resume paper collection since Monday. 

The crisis may have blown over for the time being, but there are lessons to be learnt from this whole saga as far as Hong Kong is concerned.

In the long run, the city needs to establish a more sound recycling policy, as well step up efforts to reduce waste generation.

Trying to export your way out of the problem is no real solution.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 18

Translation by Julie Zhu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist