Seismic polymer shift coming from China

China is set to lead the world in banning single-use plastics that have no real societal value, says a senior Asia consultant for market intelligence provider ICIS, whilst also creating a state-of-the-art recycling industry that competes with the best in the world.

Responding to yesterday’s announcement of the bans on non-degradable plastics shopping bags and plastics straws, John Richardson explained that this is part of China’s three-stage five-year plan to ban or restrict production, sales and use of disposable plastics products.

“The implications both for virgin PE polymers demand in China and for the amount of that demand which is met by recycled production are likely to be very significant,” he said. “It all started with the heavy restrictions that China introduced in January 2018 on imports of mixed, highly polluted scrap plastics. That was the first major sign that China, as part of wider environmental commitment, was taking the plastics-waste issue seriously.

“Subsequently, conversations with senior petrochemical industry executives with connections to the Chinese government suggested that China wanted to go further – by tackling the much bigger problem of local plastics rubbish. The problem is that plastics rubbish is adding to China’s shortage of potable water, as of course lots of the plastics rubbish is ending up in rivers, contaminating the water supply.

“It therefore seemed likely that bans of single-use plastic would be introduced and so there is no real surprise that the bans have been announced.”

In parallel, there are reports that China is to modernise its plastics recycling business as a means of reducing dependence on imported virgin resins and adding value to its economy.

Richardson added: “The current local recycling industry is, on the whole, highly disorganised and inefficient.”

China is the biggest polymer import market in the world, especially for polyethylene, so whatever happens in China is a big deal for the global polymers business.