Estimated 350k tonnes of UK plastic waste could go unrecycled as a result of China ban

Recycler and exporter Vanden Recycling has calculated that the UK will see 350,000 tonnes of plastic go unrecycled in 2018, as a result of the impending ban on imports of plastic scrap and other waste materials into China.

Back in July, China announced its intention to ban 24 kinds of solid waste, including all post-consumer plastics and unsorted paper, and impose a 0.5 per cent limit on contamination for all waste imports, higher than the original 0.3 per cent proposed in August but still some way below the current 1.5 per cent limit.

At the time, the announcement sent ripples through the UK recycling industry, which relies on China as a key end destination for its recyclate, currently sending about 494,000 tonnes of plastics and 1.4 million tonnes of recovered paper to China.350k tonnes of UK plastic waste to go unrecycled as a result of China ban

Using HMRC export data along with stats from the National Packaging Waste Database, Vanden Recycling has extrapolated the growth seen in alternative waste destinations in 2016 and 2017 into 2018 to understand to what extent these destinations could make up the shortfall in capacity caused by the China ban, predicting that 472,500 tonnes of plastics recycling capacity will be lost in 2018.

And the outlook isn’t promising, with increased capacity in destinations including the UK, Turkey, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and the EU only increasing by 121,800 tonnes, leaving 350,700 tonnes of plastic waste with nowhere to go.

New capacity is currently being built in various destinations, however, according to Vanden, it is difficult to quantify when this will come onstream and how much of the increased capacity it would bring would be available to the UK, given the inevitable scramble from many countries to secure the additional capacity for their waste exports.

Commenting on the findings, Vanden Recycling Managing Director David Wilson said: "There are some in the market who think that it won't be a problem to find alternative markets to China as a result of its ban on most plastic imports.

"While in the short-term, it has been possible to find alternative destinations to China, our analysis suggests 2018 will be tough for the UK. We will have to find a home for over 350,000 tonnes of material that went to China and now won't have a market.

"New processing capacity will eventually emerge, it's a question of when and where, and will those markets think that the UK material that has been recycled in the past is in fact worth processing in the same volumes?

"But we will also have to factor in that China used to import seven million tonnes of scrap plastics from global destinations, so competition will be even more fierce from net exporters in places such as Europe, US and Australia. We therefore have to focus on ensuring UK material is the best quality possible and offers the best possible value to give us the opportunity to sell more to these alternative destinations."

Calls for action from recycling industry

Since China announced its intention to introduce its waste imports ban, the UK recycling industry has been scrambling to urge the UK Government and large trade bodies around the world to intervene on behalf of the industry to secure a less stringent form of the ban or to allow more time to prepare for its implementation.

A joint letter to Resources Minister Therese Coffey sent in September by the Resource Association, the Recycling Association, the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) and Environmental Services Association (ESA) in September urged the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) to ‘take urgent action’ to support the recycling industry.

An earlier letter by the Recycling Association and the CPI, delivered in August to International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Business Secretary Greg Clark, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office Mark Field, called on the government to enter into diplomatic negotiations with China over the proposed ban of scrap plastics and unsorted paper.

Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association (RA), has been working closely with colleagues from trade bodies around the world to lobby for more manageable standards and a delay in their implementation.

Being party to discussions between the Chinese Government and international trade bodies such as the American Institute of Scrap Recycling (ISRI) and the Bureau of International Recycling, Ellin this week suggested that further concerns have arisen following a meeting between the ISRI and the Chinese Government concerning the ban.

According to Ellin, these concerns include:

  • Actions are coming from the highest echelons of the Chinese Government, leaving agencies such as the CMEP (China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection) and AQSIQ (General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine) without the time and resources to implement the new rules;
  • It appears as if the Chinese are going beyond what is needed to correct the perceived problem of waste imports with a view to iron out any issues at a later date;
  • Continued confusion within China over what is allowed to be imported and what isn’t;
  • The ISRI is concerned that other countries may choose to follow China’s example of implementing stringent copycat rules; and
  • The ISRI is advising its members exporting to China to go keep material very clean and present more photos than usually needed, while preparing for rejections.

Ellin said: "The discussions ISRI has had with the Chinese Government highlight a lot of concerns we have had that the ban and greater restrictions on imports is being implemented too quickly.

"Clearly, as much as we in the UK, US and elsewhere do not have enough time to adapt, this is also the case with the Chinese agencies at the other end. This suggests there could be chaos until everyone is able to adapt or ideally a much longer time period is given for us to prepare.

"Until we get to the bottom of some of the areas of uncertainty, The Recycling Association, like ISRI, is reminding its members and the wider recycling sector of the need to keep material exceptionally clean, take more photos than were required previously, and be prepared that even this material can be rejected.

"With the World Trade Organisation consultation ending on Friday 15 December, The Recycling Association will continue to lobby for a relaxation of standards or alternatively a delay in implementation, until all stakeholders are prepared."

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