A ban on imports of millions of tonnes of plastic waste by the Chinese government is already causing a build up of rubbish at recycling plants around the UK and will bring chaos for councils in the weeks ahead, according to industry experts.
Simon Ellin, chief executive of the UK Recycling Association, said his members had already seen some lower grade plastics piling up at their yards and warned urgent action was needed.
“You can already see the impact if you walk round some of our members’ yards. Plastic is building up and if you were to go around those yards in a couple of months’ time the situation would be even worse.”
The Chinese plastic ban came in on 1 January but Ellin said many UK recycling businesses stopped shipping plastic to China in the Autumn because of fears it might not arrive before the deadline.
“We have relied on exporting plastic recycling to China for 20 years and now people do not know what is going to happen. A lot of [our members] are now sitting back and seeing what comes out of the woodwork, but people are very worried.”
China’s dominance in manufacturing means that for years it has been the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials. In 2016, it imported 7.3m tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the US and Japan.
British companies alone have shipped more than 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012 – two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports, according to data from Greenpeace released last month.
But last summer the Chinese government announced it intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of the year, including polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) drinks bottles, other plastic bottles and containers, and all mixed paper, in a campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage”.
Ellin warned that the ban could have severe consequences for council recycling in the UK – at least in the short term.
“If it no longer pays for our members to take this waste and sort it once it has been collected by councils then that might stop.
“That might mean that councils no longer collect recycling in the same way. It could be chaos, it really could.”
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, announced a “4 point plan for tackling waste” last month including cutting the total amount of plastic in circulation, reducing the number of different plastics in use and making recycling easier.
But when asked recently about the impact of the China waste ban he said: “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is … something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given it sufficient thought.”
Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, has warned the ban could mean “a double whammy for council tax payers” if the price of exported waste falls and the cost of UK disposal rises. And she has called on the government to invest in more reprocessing facilities at home “to reuse these valuable materials, create green jobs and prevent plastic and paper pollution.”
A Defra spokesperson insisted the government was taking “significant steps” to tackle plastic waste, from the ban on plastic microbeads to the introduction of the carrier bag charge.
“We recognise more needs to be done to protect our environment from the scourge of plastics, and have launched a call for evidence around deposit reward and return schemes for plastic bottles and other drinks containers.”
Some experts believe that in the long term the decision by China could be an opportunity for the UK to develop its recycling infrastructure.
Ellin agreed that if there was the political will this could be an opportunity in the medium term.
“We need to look at the entire system from producing less, to better, simpler design, to standardised recycling. In the medium term this should be seen as a great opportunity for us to drastically improve how we do these things.”
Source: The Guardian – Matthew Taylor