Challenges face China’s emerging waste recycling businesses

World Today

With Chinese cities growing at unprecedented speed and scale, the sheer amount of the waste they produce become a major headache and for some, an opportunity as China attempts to make it more lucrative for companies to recycle the waste. CCTV America’s Han Peng reported from Beijing.

Over 20 million plastic bottles are thrown away every day in the Chinese capital. The Incom Recycle Co. factory in the suburbs of Beijing is the biggest bottle-to-bottle production line in Asia, and the only one in China.

On the assembly line, the plastic bottles get separated and then broken down into polyester chips.

“These are the end result of the whole process. They can be used to make bottles again. The conventional recycling of bottles is to make them into clothing, but that means the plastic is only used once. As we know, plastics are extracted from oil, so if keep the plastics, oil is definitely saved,” Chang Chao, the general manager of Incom Recycle Co. Ltd, said.

Working at full capacity, this factory could save 300,000 tons of oil a year. That’s enough to keep all of Beijing’s taxis fueled for a year.

While some consider Incom is a good model for China’s recycling economy, the reality is company’s cutting-edge machines have spent most of the past four years silent. Normally, the assembly line can process over 2.2 billion bottles a year, but now it is not creating even one, because they can’t get the bottles they need.

Incom’s major competitors were the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who collect garbage from neighborhoods, schools and shopping malls. They purchase the waste from residents by the kilograms for a small amount of money.

By some estimates, around 90 percent of the bottles in Beijing were recycled this way. The problem was these bottles were transported to just 30 minutes outside central Beijing where there is a sea of bottles at a secret recycling yard.

“They sell the plastics to some small and irresponsible factories to make chemical fiber. They don’t have sewage treatment or any proper environmental protection facilities. The chemicals left are most likely emitted into rivers and lakes,” said Liu Xuesong, the deputy general manager of Incom Recycle Co. Ltd, said.

This thriving black market leaves recycling companies like Incom struggling to cope.

Recognizing the problem, the government closed down secret recycling sites and tightened regulations over where the waste goes. There were around 130 of these sites in Beijing. Now there are 90, which is a decline of more than 30 percent.

Authorities had also written policies to encourage recycling in the hope that these cutting-edge machines will be operating again soon.

Beijing’s battle over the bottles were just one of the many forefronts of China’s war on urban waste. Across the country, the huge and still increasing amount of rubbish had become a major challenge for the burgeoning cities. Authorities were not just launching tough measures, but also try to leverage the market to make environmental protection a profitable business.