An emerging story line in the first quarter of 2017 was the introduction of new inspection and customs procedures in China for many types of secondary commodities. A program that has been fitted with the English name “National Sword” involves a joint effort by several Chinese agencies to more carefully scrutinize recycled materials heading into Chinese ports.

As the first quarter ended, many recyclers who were already busy adjusting to the increased scrutiny in China also were greeted with news from India’s Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) that it would quickly reduce the number of ports able to accept scrap metal.

In both nations, the use of large X-ray machines that can scan entire sea containers are part of the story. Some Chinese ports are using such machines already, and India’s DGFT is making the devices a requirement for ports that wish to continue to accept scrap metal beyond 2017.

Motives for increased scrutiny in China, India and other nations can vary, but several goals run in common. Catching smuggled goods is one common aspect, as is looking for potentially live ordnance in scrap metal shipments.

In China, opposition to low-grade materials is a common theme. Attendees of Chinese recycling trade shows often hear references to “foreign garbage” in the English translations in their earphones, particularly from speakers from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

Media coverage in China regularly points to low-grade shipments of mixed nonmetallic scrap materials that, to Customs inspectors, look or smell no better than garbage. The country also is alert to taking receipt of nonworking potentially hazardous electronic scrap.

The result in China is that mixed plastic scrap, and increasingly mixed paper scrap, is meeting with a frosty reception. For scrap metals shippers, any signs of circuit boards in shipments can be written up as a violation.

"How can collection efforts best be matched to processing methods if the mixed paper grade becomes as difficult to market as mixed plastic has been?”

This column will not end with a warning to recyclers to pay attention to their quality. The last thing a recycling company manager needs from an outside observer is a reminder that quality is important.

The bigger questions seem to fall into two other categories. For recyclers of residential materials, how can collection efforts best be matched to processing methods if the mixed paper grade becomes as difficult to market as mixed plastic has been?

For recyclers across the entire metallic and nonmetallic spectrum, an emerging question might be: When does a preponderance of overseas inspection methods become so volatile and so onerous as to cause them to reconsider the amount of exporting they do?

Each of these questions could yield unpleasant answers, but 2017 has begun as a year when both questions may need to be addressed.