A ban on imports of millions of tonnes of plastic waste by the Chinese government from January could see an end to collection of some plastic in the UK and increase the risk of environmental pollution, according to key figures in the industry.
Recycling companies say the imminent restrictions by China – the world’s biggest market for household waste – will pose big challenges to the UK’s efforts to recycle more plastic.
Analysis of customs data by Greenpeace reveals British companies 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.
Pressure is growing on Thérèse Coffey, the environment minister, to take urgent action to support and build the UK recycling industry to meet the challenges created by the China ban. But when asked recently, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, 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.”
Stuart Foster from Recoup, said there were indications in 2008 and 2012 that the Chinese market might be restricted in future but no action was taken in the UK. He said the restrictions on the export market should be an opportunity for the UK to develop its own infrastructure and create a circular economy in plastics.
But there was no robust plan in place to cope with the impact of the closure of the biggest market for waste in the world and the restrictions would lead to stockpiling of plastic waste, more incineration and the risk of more landfill.
“Whatever happens we need to maintain control of the material because the bigger worry is about leakage of plastic into the environment,” said Foster.
China’s dominance in manufacturing means that for years it has been the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials. In 2016, China imported 7.3m tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the US and Japan.
China's dominant position in manufacturing means that for many years it has been the largest global importer of many types of recyclable materials which it uses in 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 China, in a campaign against "foreign garbage", is simultaneously banning the importation of 24 types of material, including plastic and mixed paper waste. 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.
But this summer the Chinese announced they intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of this 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”.
The Chinese have also increased quality controls for all other waste including cardboard, something other markets are likely to follow, which will also put the British recycling industry under huge pressure. The impact could see local authorities reducing collections because they are not economically viable.
Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said the government was asleep on the job and the situation was a shambles. “If the government is serious about waste and recycling, they need to invest and come up with a coherent plan for the recycling industry,” he said.
Ray Georgeson, head of the Resource Association, an advocacy body for the recycling industry, said the lower-grade materials would have nowhere to go.
“Can you imagine the press coverage if local authority recycling rates drop by 5 or 10% because the plastics have no market to go to?” he said.
Lee Marshall, chief executive of Larac, which advises local authorities on recycling, told Greenpeace the fee at sorting plants may increase for councils because the sorting would have to be done to a better standard for new markets, or the price they get for any materials may decrease.
This could lead some councils to stop collecting some types of plastic, such as meat trays and yoghurt pots, for recycling. “While councils don’t like turning materials off … if the economics are such that it does cause them a problem, that’s a decision they’ll have to make,” he said.
Marcus Gover, chief executive of Wrap, said the restrictions posed “substantial challenges” and urgent action was needed to secure a thriving recycling supply chain for plastics and paper to benefit the UK economically and environmentally. The quality of UK recycling has to improve to meet higher standards put in place by China and other markets, he said
Many believe the restriction of the Chinese market should be opportunity for the UK to develop its recycling infrastructure and forge a link with the UK manufacturing industry to utilise more recycled plastic.
But many experts said the government was not taking action.
Foster said: “If you could get the link in place with UK manufacturers making plastic products, so that it makes business and environmental sense to use the recycled content and at the same time build up the recycling infrastructure in the UK, this is a real opportunity.
“We need the right policy put in place. But unfortunately because of Brexit ... we have other priorities.”
Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “This ban could mean a double whammy for council tax payers if the price of our exported waste falls and the cost of UK disposal rises. The government should show leadership and invest in more reprocessing facilities at home to reuse these valuable materials, create green jobs and prevent plastic and paper pollution.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We are continuing to work with the waste industry and the Environment Agency to understand the impact across the sector of the Chinese government’s proposed restrictions on waste imports.
“We are also looking at ways to process more of our recycling at home as part of our resources and waste strategy.”