Bold government leadership needed on plastics in wake of China waste ban

The Resource Association has called on the government to take ‘bold and radical’ leadership on the issue of plastic waste in light of the new Chinese restrictions on the import of waste materials implemented at the start of the month.

Complete bans on 24 grades of solid waste, which were announced in July, were adopted on 1 January and will apply to a range of solid wastes, including unsorted mixed papers and post-consumer plastics. Meanwhile, from 1 March 2018, any other materials exceeding a contamination limit of 0.5 per cent will also be blocked, with the time between 1 January and 1 March effectively constituting a transition period.

Bold leadership from government needed on plastics in wake of China waste materials ban
China's decision to stop importing foreign waste will put great pressure on the recycling industry in the UK and across the world
The new restrictions will have a serious impact on the UK recycling supply chain, especially for plastics, given that the UK currently sends about 494,000 tonnes of plastics to China every year.

The Resource Association, a trade association representing UK resource and recycling companies, has called on the government today (5 January) to provide leadership to the UK recycling sector in order to improve the quality of recyclate produced and support its use in UK manufacturing, where possible, through the creation of appropriate domestic markets for secondary materials.

Furthermore, in order to ease the financial pressures on local authorities and materials recycling facility (MRF) operators who are currently responsible for collecting and sorting recyclable waste for reprocessing, the Association is calling for the balance of responsibility for plastic products placed on the market to shift towards producers, through design for recyclability and statutory requirements for minimum recycled content in products.

In order to achieve this, the Association believes that a more interventionist regulatory approach from government is needed in this area of public policy and should include the following measures:

  • Mandatory recycled content for various plastic products, taking account of environmental benefits and food safety considerations;

  • A new programme of R&D and enhanced tax credits support for investment in manufacturing technology to support the use of recyclate as a primary input;

  • Mandatory design guidelines for plastic packaging products sold on the UK market;

  • Action through trading standards to ban certain single-use plastic products; and

  • Introduce reforms to producer responsibility that include incentives for the use of recycled content with levies on non-recyclable products, with any funds generated used for new communications and collections action.

Commenting on the new restrictions, Resource Association Chief Executive Ray Georgeson said: “As China says ‘enough’, we must now use this moment to seize the opportunity it should presents to rebalance the UK recycling economy and return to the unfinished tasks of developing our own markets and sustainable end uses for our secondary materials.

Bold leadership from government needed on plastics in wake of China waste materials ban
Ray Georgeson
“By definition, this will not solve the short-term challenges that need different interventions, but as Defra revisits its Resources and Waste Strategy and Secretary of State Michael Gove expresses the need for the ‘reshoring of our dirt’, an action plan for secondary resources is essential.

“Michael Gove has already started down this route with his ‘four point plan’ for plastics he outlined just before Christmas and we encourage him to continue to be bold and radical. A whole ‘circular resource economy’ approach that tackles collection, material handling, reprocessing, production, retailing and consumer behaviour would help deliver the benefits of smarter use and better recycling of plastics in the UK as well as send the right signals in support of taking responsibility again for the resources we use.

“The time has come for Defra and WRAP to once again assume a leadership role on this aspect of resources policy. If government chooses to engage, research and act, the industry will respond.”  

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