Could the Chinese export ban lead to a great leap forward for British recycling?
Action against imports of waste in China has sent schockwaves around the world. Could it be the catalyst for improved quality in the UK? Rob Cole finds out
Common perceptions of recycling often begin and end with closing the lid on the household recycling bin, while little thought goes into where our empty yoghurt pots and egg boxes eventually end up. Some will be dealt with close to home, but some materials commonly end up being sent halfway around the world to be recycled.
China has long been such a destination. The country currently imports around 70 per cent of the world’s electronic waste and 12 million tonnes of plastic annually, making use of its vast capacity and extensive labour force to take on the burden of lower quality recyclate collected in the West. However, it seems China has had enough.
In July, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection filed a notice to the World Trade Organisation’s Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade informing the organisation that it would be banning the import of four classes and 24 kinds of solid waste, including ‘plastics waste from living sources, unsorted waste paper and waste textile materials’, from the start of 2018, in a bid to crackdown on ‘foreign garbage’ which has ‘polluted China’s environment seriously’.
According to Xie Xinyuan, Policy Officer at China Zero Waste Alliance, the new measures aim to “protect the environment and green development, as much waste goes to family workshops with no environmental protections and protect the health of those conducting waste and recycling reprocessing”.
China is the UK’s second largest export market outside of the EU, after the US, taking around 494,000 tonnes of UK plastics (about £246.5-million-worth) and around 1.4 million tonnes of recovered paper, meaning that any change in state policy regarding waste imports will have significant implications for the UK recycling sector.
Yet, despite the announcement, no one in the UK seems completely sure how the ban will work, with little information or clarity coming out of China. Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association, explains: “Our interpretation after speaking to China at quite a high level, is that they have announced a total blanket ban on post-consumer plastics and, in vague terms, unsorted mixed paper.”
Rumoured for some time, the announcement was not a total surprise, but this has done little to quell the anxiety of exporters. Garry West, Managing Director of West Recycling, a UK recycling company with strong links with China, said: “It’s just very foggy at the moment. The statement hasn’t clarified anything, it’s only served to confuse us more.” This lack of clarity is being felt by exporters and buyers alike, with exporters unsure about whether they should ship material such as fridge plastic – which is a manufactured good but one whose waste is technically produced by the household and can thus can be considered post-consumer – for fear that shipments will be rejected at Chinese ports.
Even those who are to implement the new policy will often be relying on their own interpretation of the rules, at least initially, until further clarity is provided. It is expected this will be around November and December, when import licences are renewed. West stated: “It’s the guys on the ground who have to enforce it, so it is down to their interpretation as to what will be accepted.”
The heart of the matter
This is not the first time that the UK recycling industry has received bad news from China. Only this February, China’s General Administration of Customs, the government body that deals with China’s imports and exports, announced a nine-month crackdown on the illegal smuggling of contraband. This also included a tightening of its policy towards legal shipments of contaminated recyclate, known as the National Sword campaign, which saw 22,000 tonnes of exported waste confiscated in the first month
The campaign continues in the same vein as 2013’s Green Fence campaign to lower the amount of contaminated recyclables and waste being sent to China, which resulted in 800,000 tonnes of foreign waste being rejected in the first six months and 247 companies losing their import licences.
These previous crackdowns took their toll on UK recycling exports, with exports falling by 40 per cent following the introduction of Operation Green Fence in 2013. They again fell by 40 per cent following National Sword’s arrival, with prices for mixed papers falling from a high of £80-105 per tonne in March down to £40-52 in April.
Not only that, as Xie says: “The policy has had a great impact on Chinese importers, many of whom have seen their import licences revoked. Some have gone overseas, generally to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand or Malaysia to turn plastic scrap into pellets and then import them into China, while others have simply quit their businesses.”
How did the UK recycling sector respond to this? After overcoming the initial shock, it is fair to say that the industry has made efforts to up its game and improve the quality of its recyclate. As Ellin attests: “We reacted very well to Green Fence. After the initial nervousness it becomes common practice and you begin to operate on a higher plane and I think the same thing’s happening with National Sword.”
After campaigns to improve recycling quality and improved technologies at MRFs, the UK recycling sector has made great effort in recent years to improve the quality of recycling produced.
There is an understanding that the responsibility for improving quality must be shared all along the supply chain. Ellin emphasised the need for “joint supply-chain responsibility”, stating: “Obviously it should start with eco-design, but we’re stuck with what we’ve got at the moment and so it must start with householders and local authorities.
“If local authorities want a sustainable front door, back door recycling system, I’m afraid they’ve got to chuck a bit of money at education, publicity and monitoring of what goes in the bin.”
One does wonder where UK local authorities are going to find this money given the incredible budgetary pressures they are under every day to be efficient with their spending, and West acknowledges that the local authorities need help to deliver, saying: “We need to go to segregated recycling, but who will foot the bill? Most councils don’t have a budget for five separate collections, they have a budget for one. I think the way forward is education and central government investment – it must make funds available to change the way we recycle.”
While China’s rapid socio-economic development and environmental turn – the government committing an additional £29 billion to waste and clean energy production – and the mutating labour market may have rendered China’s proposed ban as somewhat inevitable (as West neatly puts it: “If you’re a Chinese agricultural worker coming from rural areas to the city, do you want to work in a factory handling smelly, dirty plastic, or in a Samsung factory in nice blue overalls where it’s clean, regular work and you get fed twice a day? It’s no contest.”), what the future holds is anything but.
Despite concerns that, rather than improving quality, exporters will simply take their materials to less risky markets in Asia, and that some exports, such as mixed paper, have been diverted to mainland Europe, it seems there simply isn’t enough capacity in these markets to replace that of China, even if, as stated above, some Chinese importers are relocating. “You can try to find alternative markets,” says West, “but China is such a large buyer, you can’t just divert all that tonnage to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam because they just do not have the capacity.”
It therefore appears that, in any case, building on the recent improvements in quality is the industry’s best bet. Ellin’s message to the industry: “We have to up our game and get away from this culture where people try to get away with something that is outside the standards that are required.”
Improving quality is not without its own problems, as additional cleaning to remove contamination that amounts to, for example, five per cent non-target material creates additional waste streams, which will have to either be sent to landfill or disposed of environmentally, according to West.
However, that appears to be a relatively secondary concern if that’s the price that must be paid to keep the Chinese ports open to UK recycling exports. Improving quality across the board is the right way forward for the industry and the markets, and the industry has already made strides towards that and it looks as if, in years to come, we might just be looking back on this and thanking China for the kick up the proverbial the UK sector needed.