Chinese restrictions from January will hit UK recycling efforts and risk plastic waste being stockpiled or ending up in landfill, warn industry leaders
Sorting paper and plastic waste in Oregon, US. In 2016, China imported 7.3m tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, US and Japan. Photograph: Natalie Behring/Getty Image
A ban on imports of millions of tonnes ofplastic waste by the Chinese government from January could see an end tocollection of some plastic in the UK and increase the risk of environmentalpollution, according to key figures in the industry.
Recycling companies say the imminentrestrictions by China – the world’s biggest market for household waste – willpose big challenges to the UK’s efforts to recycle more plastic.
The UK has exported over 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012
Analysis of customs data by Greenpeacereveals British companies have shipped more than 2.7m tonnes of plastic wasteto China and Hong Kong since 2012 – two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plasticexports.
“Whatever happens we need to maintain control of the material becausethe bigger worry is about leakage of plastic into the environment,” saidFoster.
China’s dominance in manufacturing meansthat for years it has been the world’s largest importer of recyclablematerials. In 2016, China imported 7.3m tonnes of waste plastics from developedcountries including the UK, the US and Japan.
But this summer the Chinese announced theyintended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of thisyear, including polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) drinks bottles, other plasticbottles and containers, and all mixed paper, in a campaign against yang laji or“foreign garbage”.
The Chinese have also increased qualitycontrols for all other waste including cardboard, something other markets arelikely to follow, which will also put the British recycling industry under hugepressure. The impact could see local authorities reducing collections becausethey are not economically viable.
Simon Ellin, chief executive of theRecycling Association, said the government was asleep on the job and thesituation was a shambles. “If the government is serious about waste andrecycling, they need to invest and come up with a coherent plan for the recyclingindustry,” he said.
Ray Georgeson, head of the ResourceAssociation, an advocacy body for the recycling industry, said the lower-gradematerials would have nowhere to go.
Marcus Gover, chief executive of Wrap, saidthe restrictions posed “substantial challenges” and urgent action was needed tosecure a thriving recycling supply chain for plastics and paper to benefit theUK economically and environmentally. The quality of UK recycling has to improveto meet higher standards put in place by China and other markets, he said.
Many believe the restriction of the Chinesemarket should be opportunity for the UK to develop its recycling infrastructureand forge a link with the UK manufacturing industry to utilise more recycledplastic.
But many experts said the government wasnot taking action.
Foster said: “If you could get the link inplace with UK manufacturers making plastic products, so that it makes businessand environmental sense to use the recycled content and at the same time buildup the recycling infrastructure in the UK, this is a real opportunity.
“Weare also looking at ways to process more of our recycling at home as part ofour resources and waste strategy.”