The Repercussions of the Chinese Waste Import Ban

Bales of Plastic Waste to be Recycled

An imminent ban on Chinese waste imports could cause havoc in the UK as no provisions have been made for alternative solutions, recycling companies have warned. Earlier this year, China introduced a series of regulations that include a complete ban on plastic waste imports which is soon to come into force, and here in the UK we have nowhere for our waste to go. 

Last year, China imported 7.3 million tonnes of waste plastics from counties including the UK, US, Japan and the EU. Since 2012, the UK has exported over 2.7million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong, selling it to be recycled along with exported paper and textiles.

Changes in China

This summer, China announced stopping the import of 24 materials, including plastic and mixed paper, in a bid to increase domestic recycling rates which are currently extremely low – official estimates put rates at only 2-3%. Another of the regulation changes was to increase the minimum production of recycling plants, and with many recycling plants being state owned, smaller mills will be squeezed out. The changes in China will be a great boost to their economy – but here the future is uncertain. 

Regional Differences

There is no standardised way of collecting or managing household waste in the UK, meaning there are great differences in facilities across the country. Nearly all councils offer a kerbside recycling service, but the items collected varies hugely. Councils are under financial pressure to send as little to landfill as possible, with each authority’s allowance reduced each year and landfill taxes charged per tonne. Sending recyclable waste abroad has meant many councils haven’t needed to worry about investing in infrastructure to deal with recycling, and now rubbish may pile up with nowhere to go or end up being sent to landfill. 

Unprepared Gove-rnment

There have been warning signs over the past few years to indicate that China would cease to buy in our waste. However, there haven’t been any moves to develop infrastructure or create a circular economy. When asked about the impending crisis, environment secretary Michael Gove 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.” Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said the government haven’t been paying attention to the situation. “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. 

Now is a golden opportunity for the government to invest in standardising collections and creating a circular economy. There are already consultations in place for a Deposit Return Scheme, Gove must take this time to concentrate efforts on bringing together the plastics supply chain to develop a system that works for everyone. We already buy in waste to recycle from other factories and recycle all of our own, but there is so much more that can be done to benefit the manufacturing and recycling industries. 

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