UK faces major problems with plastic recycling as China has just introduced a ban on the import of plastic waste.
The ban came with little warning, which means that the UK will have to find alternative solutions for dealing with up to 500,000 tonnes of plastic that it ships to China for recycling every year.
At the moment the UK cannot deal with much of that waste, says the UK Recycling Association.
Its chief executive, Simon Ellin, told the BBC he had no idea how the problem would be solved in the short term.
“It’s a huge blow for us… a game-changer for our industry,” he said. “We’ve relied on China so long for our waste… 55% of paper, 25% plus of plastics.
“We simply don’t have the markets in the UK. It’s going to mean big changes in our industry.”
China’s reasons for banning plastic imports
China’s dominant position in manufacturing means that for many years it has been the largest global importer of many types of recyclable materials for its manufacturing industry.
Countries like the UK have relied on China as a market for its waste, partly because until recently the Chinese had lower standards than other markets. Exporting to China was a way of meeting higher recycling targets and reducing landfill without having to improve the collections and quality of our recyclable waste material.
But now China, in a campaign against “foreign garbage” (yang laji), is simultaneously banning the importation of 24 types of material. This includes polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) drinks bottles, other plastic bottles and containers, and all mixed paper. The Chinese government has indicated it will in future only accept recyclable material with a maximum contamination level of 0.3%.
The current situation could be an opportunity for the UK to increase the proportion of recycled plastic in its own products, improve the quality of recovered materials and to use recycled material in new ways.
Problems and solutions
The Chinese decision does cause problems for local authorities and councils leading to stock-piling of plastic waste and a move towards incineration and landfill.
Peter Fleming, from the Local Government Association, told the BBC: “Clearly there’s a part to play for incineration but not all parts of the country have incinerators.
Any move towards burning more plastic waste, though, would be met with fierce resistance from environmental groups.
Louise Edge, from Greenpeace, told the BBC: “The government has got us into this mess by continually putting off decisions and passing the buck.
“Incineration is the wrong answer – it’s a high-carbon non-renewable form of generating electricity. It also creates toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
“If you build incinerators it creates a market for the next 20 years for single-use plastics, which is the very thing we need to be reducing right now.”
The government is consulting with industry over a tax on single-use plastics and a deposit scheme for bottles.
The Commons Environmental Audit Committee said Britain should introduce a sliding scale tax on plastic packaging with the hardest to recycle being charge most and the easiest to recycle being charged least.
The economics are fragile but most agree that a reduction of plastic waste is the long-term goal.