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Recycled polyester endangered by China left-over ban

A bar on all the import of all resources classified by the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment as ‘solid waste’ – including recovered fibre – came into effect on 1 January 2021. Industry advisors dread this may end imports of high-end recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) flakes, which are mainly valuable to make functional fabrics and footwear, as well as stuffed toys, pillows and cushions.

Recycled-polyester-endangered-China-left-over ban
Figure: Usage of recycled fibres in garments and footwear is seen as one of the key ways to realize sustainability in the apparel industry, given that waste PET bottles.

A fractional import ban on solid waste was implemented in January 2018 and has previously congested large volumes of recycled PET flake imports – though high-grade recycled PET flakes were allowed back in in May the same year. The looming ban of all solid waste imports may opposite this regulative easing.

Usage of recycled fibres in garments and footwear is seen as one of the key ways to realize sustainability in the apparel industry, given that waste PET bottles create serious disposal difficulties as they are not biodegradable.

Firms are progressively fluctuating from virgin fibre to recycled fibre to improve their environmental impact statuses. Adidas, for its part, has been pointing to have more than half of the polyester it uses to be recycled in 2020, reaching up to 100% by 2024.

“This time, it is still unclear whether the A, B and C class of clean PET flakes will be comprised in the solid waste. It is predictable that importers will suspend imports in the short term, to wait for a clear direction,” Hangzhou-based fibre consultancy Zhejiang Huarui Information Consulting said in a recent client note.

These recycled PET flakes are those that have been melted and cut into renewed chips before being exported to China, giving them the same HS code as virgin chips.

Foreign investment

UK-based industrial upstream consultancy Wood Mackenzie pointed out that the high cost of producing such clean regenerated chips has spurred Chinese investment abroad to produce recycled staple for export to China.

This has involved directly procurement and processing bottle flakes in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and South Africa. At the same time the Chinese government has also been forceful the textile industry to use materials sourced by recycling PET bottles castoff in China to fill the void that has been fashioned due to offshoring the processing of old PET bottles.

Quality issues

Though, at the recent plastic recycling trade show China Replas, Zheng Kai, President of the China Synthetic Resin Supply and Sales Association, flagged that high production costs and unstable product quality are among the main factors limiting Chinese companies from incoming the high-end recycled PET industry to meet the demand by international apparel brands.

Other Chinese industry insiders were quoted by local media as pointing out that China’s domestic supply of PET bottles is of inferior quality than imported input, owing to Chinese consumers typically not cleaning and drying the plastic bottles and not separating the caps and labels.

According to Wang Zhongming, director of Jiangsu Zhonglu Technology Development, a manufacturer of fibres made of recycled PET, this results in poor quality of the spun fibre and affects the quality of the subsequent textile. In addition, spinning with recycled PET chips significantly reduces production equipment lifespan, according to Wang.

“Each process of spinning recycled chips is more complicated and more demanding, resulting in processing losses that are more than double the cost of raw chips,” Wang said.

State of turmoil

Benjamin Cavender, Managing Director of Shanghai-based China Market Research Group (CMR), noted that the PET flake market in China has been in a state of upheaval for the last four years.

This is because China has continued to evolve its policies regarding imports of recycled materials, its own domestic recycling policies, as well as policies around the use of recycled materials in new products. According to Cavender, it remains to be seen how the looming import ban will affect pricing dynamics.

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