The UK Recycling Industry Faces Crisis After China Bans Waste Imports

As world governments aim to reduce plastic pollution, the recycling industry has played a major role in achieving global development goals.

Some nations recycle plastics domestically, meaning that they have the capabilities to take in, sort, treat and remold plastics within their own borders. However, many nations, including the UK, have taken to outsourcing their plastics recycling — usually to China. Until relatively recently, more than half the world’s recycled plastics were processed in China. The Telegraph reported that China processed over 7.3 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2016 .

But not anymore.

In July of 2016, China told the World Trade Organization that the country was no longer willing to accept what it titled “yang laji,“ or “foreign garbage.” And that means that China will not accept imported plastics, waste textiles and unsorted waste paper. The nation will continue to accept imports of what it terms “clean” cardboard, but the material must be largely unsoiled by dust or gravel.

China has taken this step because it has recommitted to reducing its environmental impact — something that world leaders have been urging for many years now. As a rapidly growing industrial power that is a key force in the manufacturing sector, many nations hold a special interest in ensuring that China, where possible, abides by stringent green policies.

But China now argues that it can not do so if the country continues to be a destination for foreign waste processing.

Despite a six month’s notice of when the ban would come into effect – January 1, 2018 — the UK’s recycling division now faces a crisis.

The Guardian reports:

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the UK Recycling Association, 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.

Some potential short-term solutions do exist, but they will not be a complete remedy.

The UK could negotiate with other manufacturing nations, like Malaysia, to determine if those countries would accept some of its waste.But even if that proved effective, the UK will likely still have a significant backlog of plastics waste.

The UK could also use landfill sites, but they have drawbacks. Plastics were once thought to be inert, but some research shows that over time they can leach chemicals and contaminate groundwater. If properly managed, that risk perhaps could be mitigated as a short-term solution, but given that plastics don’t degrade, this is an unsustainable method.

Another potential solution is incineration. But this strategy is terrible for the environment, and to recoup investment in building incinerators, they would have to run for several years — if not decades.

The UK press has taken to exploring this issue as one that has been forced on the UK government. And indeed, to an extent that is true. But why, with six months notice, has the government failed to act more decisively? Officials have developed plans for wider recycling management, but they’ve yet to address this particular issue. Environmental Secretary Michael Gove has admitted that he potentially underestimated the impact of this ban.

China’s reasoning behind the ban is complex, but one of its key aims is to clean up its heavily polluted soil and improve national air quality. These are two aims that China committed to under the Paris Agreement, so it’s surprising that the UK hasn’t properly prepared for this eventuality.

As the UK government works to solve this issue, it’s critical to shield consumers from any tax increases, or the UK could risk driving down recycling as a household practice. After all, this is not the public’s mistake or fault, and they should not be penalized.

Photo Credit: Mitch Altman/Flickr

46 comments

Celine Russo
Celine Russo5 days ago

And that's why there's a need for less plastic.

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Leanne K
Leanne K6 days ago

Yes Australia sends its waste metals to china for recycling because our standards make it not cost effective. We do this knowingly. Thats not good. Time we dealt with the issue instead of palming it off. Not in my backyard indeed

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Leanne K
Leanne K6 days ago

Sensible of China

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Marija M
Marija M8 days ago

tks

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David Thieke
David Thieke8 days ago

Good article. Thanks for sharing

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Fran SiteIssues F

Much of the plastics recycling from the U.S.' West Coast went to China as well, and now we are in more trouble due to the total lack of support for environmental protection, recycling and sustainable manufacturing from resident Trump. RESIST!

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Winn A
Winn Adams9 days ago

Noted

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Ruth S
Ruth S10 days ago

Thanks.

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Lorraine Andersen

We need to learn to deal with our own waste.

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Danii P
Danii P10 days ago

tyfs

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