China Bets on Circular Economy

From the Chinese ministry of economy‘s viewpoint, the national recycling industry has achieved progresses – in parallel to the country‘s emerging rebuilding towards a resource saving and environmentally friendly society.

“Presently, there are a total of more than 100,000 recycle enterprises in China, recycling iron and steel scrap, waste plastics, nonferrous metal scrap, waste paper, waste tire, scrapped cars, electric appliances and electronic products, and vessels over 160 million tons, three times more than that in 2000, and valuing nearly 480 billion Chinese Yuan Renminbi (CNY)*), twelve times higher over 2000,” a press release of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said in 2015. “The recovery rate of scraped steel, nonferrous metal, electric appliances and electronic products surpasses 70 percent. With the industrialization speeding up in China, the scraped commodities increase, as well as the varieties. Recovering the renewable resources is faced with new requirements and new challenges.”

According to China’s “Medium and Long-Term Development Plan for Renewable Resources Recycling Systems (2015 – 2020)”, the recycling rate shall cross 75 percent in large and mid-sized cities by the end of this period. According to the information, recycling volumes of 220 million tons are intended. Furthermore, both the dimensions and the recycling industry‘s technology spectrum shall grow to a large extent. Even the adoption of a „standard operation mechanism“ is planned.

The suggestions for the 13th five-year plan (2016-2020), which should be dismissed officially in March, allows more space for the environment protection. Therefore, in China the traditional production shall be redirected to an environmentally friendly production. This implies “low-carbon production systems and the encouragement of companies to perform technology updates“, informed the government-run news agency Xinhua in November last year. However, the country‘s economic development should stand in the first place. For this economic development an annual growth of 6,5 to seven percent is going to be located.

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Involvement of foreign investors

China has opened the waste and recycling industry for foreign companies and encourages investments in this sector. This applies to the construction and the running of waste management plants as well as to sorting and recycling machines or facilities. Beyond that, investors are encouraged to act in recycling (electronic scrap, end-of-life vehicles, metals, rubber, and batteries).

Landfills, waste incinerating plants or recycling centers are usually co-financed by the public sector and they are therefore written out partially as public-private partnerships (PPP), reports Germany Trade & Invest (gtai), Germany‘s promotional organization for economy. Also the development of joint ventures with local disposal and recycling companies is a common practice.

Several proposals are already under construction or contractually secured. A few examples:

  • The “Sino-German Metal Eco-City“ in Jieyang (Province of Guangdong) shall be accomplished until 2020
  • According to the information of gtai, a recycling park emerges in Pingtan (Province of Fujian), in which end-of-life-vehicles, shipwrecks and veteran electric appliance and electronic device shall be rehashed; the aim is to trade annually one million tons of steel scrap, 20,000 tons of copper and 20,000 tons of waste plastics
  • The facility for ship-breaking and recycling, which emerges in Jiangmen (Province of Guangdong), shall have an annual capacity of 400,000 tons at command after its completion
  • A recycling facility for old tires will be build in Huai An (Province of Jiangsu) with a planned capacity in the amount of 600,000 tons/year
  • As soon as the respective manufacturing line is built, around 100,000 tons of industrial waste, like ceramic, slags, and fly ash shall be annually used for the brick‘s production
  • Furthermore, facilities for the thermal exploitation of municipal waste are emerging, for example, in Hengyang (Province of Hunan) and Xiaoxian (Province of Anhui). These two refuse incineration plants are going to deal with around 745,000 tons of waste per year.

High amount of waste produced through economic growth

The swift economic growth of the past years has brought disadvantages for the People‘s Republic, which, according to recent estimates, is going to have more than 1,4 billion inhabitants by 2020. Those disadvantages are connected with an improvement of the living standard and the expansion of the production. Also the amount of waste has increased vastly due to this development. According to gtai information, all in all 179 million tons arose in 2014, four percent more compared to the previous year. In the industrial sector amounted the occurrence of solid waste to around 3,3 billion tons as well as 31,6 million tons of hazardous waste.

According to gtai, around 90 percent of the municipal wastes are treated at least slightly and 70 percent are deposited. The German business development council ascertains, that even though the landfill‘s capacity should rise by 100.000 tons to around 520.000 tons per day in 2015, it is by far not sufficient.

Considering the limited landfill‘s capacity and increasing environmental pollution through existing and outdated landfills, more and more waste is burned. According to gtai, 164 municipal waste incineration plants were in operation in late 2013. In the past year the industry insiders estimated that the quantity of appropriate facilities would mount to 220; the then available daily incineration capacity was declared with around 216.000 tons. A daily capacity of 17.000 tons should be realized in the rural areas of the People‘s Republic at that time (2015).

According to expert opinion, the huge amount of water and organic substances puts high requirements on the thermal exploitation of municipal solid waste. Low incineration temperatures lead on to higher pollutant emissions. The Chinese limit value would have been lower than the European, but those limit values would have been hard to observe even with modern filter technology. According to statements, an energetic utilization of waste for energy generation also faces difficulties, especially as there supposedly are resistances of the population against such facilities.

Photo: M. Hermsdorf  /

Photo: M. Hermsdorf /

No area-covering recycling system

An area-covering recycling system is not (yet) realized regarding the recycling of utilizable waste. Gtai reported that sorting and recycling facilities can be found especially in pilot projects with support of the government. According to information, 25 recycling centers for packaging waste as well as 50 distribution centers should be build nationwide by the end of 2015.

It is assumed that for the new five-year program (2016-2020) further enhancements of the recycling rate for industrial waste to 72 percent will be codified. According to Chinese sources, 62,2 percent of the industry‘s solid waste has been recycled in 2013. However, 836,7 million tons ended up in landfills. At the end of the year, around 434 million tons of waste were stored on the area of the companies, partially due to missing disposal opportunities.
Even in the recycling of end-of-life vehicles progresses have been made. The respective industry is located in the setup, especially as the economics ministry of the People’s Republic supports the remodeling of demolition and recycling plants. According to statistics in 2014, China’s recycled yellow label cars (heavy-pollution vehicles) and old cars grew by around 90 percent on a year-on-year basis, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce informed in 2015. Experts are expecting that the recycling quote for motor vehicle scrap is set by 95 percent in the new five-year plan (2016-2020).

There are not enough capacities in place for the preparation and exploitation of sewage sludge either. Thereby, according to expert opinion, recycling of phosphor from industry sludge will gain in importance one day considering the enormous amount of sludge.

Aim: Green Manufacturing

China has imported recovered paper, waste glass and scrap metal for many years in order to use these exploitable materials as secondary raw materials. The “Green Fence Policy“ is in force since February 2013 and this regulation states that it is not allowed to import any waste, which’s  degree of pollution with non exploitable materials oversteps the mark of 1,5 percent. Meanwhile, companies have to possess licenses if they want to become active in the recycling area. However, there still remains a considerable volume in the unregulated black market. Therefore, the Government attempts to support the development of a sustainable waste management industry through pilot projects.

Furthermore, China aims at a more environmentally friendly production. A concurrent draft already exists.  The “Implementation Plan for Green Manufacturing Projects“ shall be a part of the strategy “Made in China 2025“. The target is a clean, low-carbon, recycling, and sustainable green manufacturing system, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) was quoted by Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC).

Bottlenecks regarding hazardous waste treatment

A significant demand for incineration capacity of hazardous waste exists in China. According to Germany Trade & Invest (gtai), the promotional organization for Germany‘s economy, the increased restrictions on emissions intensify the situation. Currently, new projects are being planned and built, often in terms of PPP (Public-Private Partnership). Nevertheless, the time slot for the ongoing expansion is restricted to a few years. After that, over capacities might impend.

*) 1 CNY = 0.153 US-Dollar (March 4, 2016)

Photo: © Hupeng |