How the UK recycling industry has been preparing for the China waste ban

The prospect of China’s waste crackdown took up much of the discourse in the second half of 2017, with talk of policy and quality looking ahead to a new reality for the UK’s waste industry. Now, with restrictions in place and the Environment Agency ensuring that banned materials don’t leave for China, talk is turning to action. What are recycling companies big and small doing to adapt?


On 1 January the Chinese Government adopted new import rules banning the import of 24 grades of solid waste, including mixed papers and post-consumer plastics, while imposing a prohibitive contamination limit of 0.5 per cent on all other waste imports, a limit so restrictive as to constitute an effective further ban, that will enter into force on 1 March.

The import restrictions will hugely affect the UK recycling industry, which currently sends about 494,000 tonnes of plastics and 1.4 million tonnes of recovered paper to China every year. The UK won’t be alone in experiencing considerable disruption, with the Bureau of International Recycling China estimating that China imported 7.3 million tonnes of plastic scrap and 27 million tonnes of waste paper from Europe, Japan and the USA in 2016.

Although the ban only came into effect last week, the industry has known of the ban and related contamination restrictions since July of last year. So what has the industry done to prepare for the implementation of this new policy that has the potential to turn the UK recycling and waste management system on its head?

New markets already growing

Environment Secretary Michael Gove alluded to these preparations, including his own department’s (Defra) actions in light of the ban, in a written statement to the House of Commons on Monday (8 January), saying: ‘We have engaged internationally to understand the scale and scope of China’s waste restrictions. The UK Government raised the issue with the EU in September. Alongside four other members, the EU subsequently questioned the proposals at the WTO in October.

‘Domestically, the government and the Environment Agency took steps last year to ensure that operators were clear on their duties to handle waste in light of China’s proposals. The Environment Agency issued fresh guidance to exporters, stating that any waste which does not meet China’s new criteria will be stopped, in the same way as banned waste going to any other country.

‘There is evidence that some operators have already been finding alternative export markets in response to the Chinese restrictions. Data for the third quarter of last year showed increases in exports of plastics to Turkey, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia and increases in exports of paper to Turkey, Taiwan and Vietnam.

How the UK recycling industry has been preparing for the China waste ban
With China out of the picture, other markets have already seen an increase in waste imports from the UK
‘Where export markets or domestic reprocessing are not available, the process chosen to manage waste must be the one that minimises the environmental impact of treatment as fully as possible and follows the waste hierarchy. This requires operators to ensure that where waste cannot be prevented or reused it is recycled where practicable, before considering energy recovery through incineration or the last resort of disposal to landfill.’

For many leading companies, as Gove highlights above, the restrictions imposed by China have moved them to seek out new markets to which to send recyclable waste materials. These markets include Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, among others.

While Richard Kirkman, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at waste company Veolia UK and Ireland told Resource that all of the firm’s “plastic recycling remains in the UK or Europe for reprocessing” and that Veolia is doing more to keep plastic recycling in the UK, other firms are looking further afield.

A spokesperson for waste management company SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK said: “In anticipation of the restrictions, SUEZ ceased to export materials directly to China in April 2017 and secured alternative offtake markets in Europe and the wider Asian region for the volumes previously exported to China.

“We have also been working hard with the local authorities and businesses we serve to ensure that recycling is free from contamination and of good quality, which will continue to help us place material in the market and achieve the best value for it.”

Quality first

Speaking on behalf of smaller UK recycling companies, Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association, highlighted the fact that while alternative markets are available, they have limited capacity, and more must be done to improve quality, saying: “It has been very difficult for our members to prepare for the Chinese waste restrictions because members were only given six months’ notice to change two decades worth of practises geared towards the Chinese market. In the short term, members are looking at and, in many cases, now supplying alternative markets for materials – these include the UK, Europe, India, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“The problem lies however in the fact that the rest of the West (the US in particular) is also looking to supply these markets. If we take mixed papers for example, the UK provided China with just over one million tonnes in 2016, but there is a further 4.5 million tonnes globally that used to supply the Chinese market and is now looking for new outlets. This will undoubtedly lead to saturated markets and further price decreases. The same principles apply to plastics and a recent analysis forecasted a capacity gap of 350,000 tonnes in 2018 and it is generally the lower quality and value grades that will suffer. There is certainly not enough current capacity in the UK to handle the displaced Chinese volumes.

How the UK recycling industry has been preparing for the China waste ban
The Chinese crackdown on waste imports is part of a larger effort to clean up the nation
“In the medium term, we may well start regrading materials, such as removing the News and PAM from mixed papers, or further separating polymers for onward recycling.”

Regarding the future for the UK recycling industry, Ellin is clear that quality must now become a priority, stating: “In the longer term, the UK needs to make further improvements to quality so that we are the preferred suppliers for new markets. This will involve supply chain responsibility, starting at the design stage, through to retailers, councils and the public. The industry is investing in new sorting technology, but there is only so far you can go when you are dealing with an average of around 17 per cent contamination rates from municipal sources. Councils have to stop passing the buck and need to lead on marketing and education to improve the quality of supply.

“Overall, though, we need guidance, legislation and investment from government and a coherent, innovative and joined up waste and recycling policy that embraces the Chinese ban and uses it as an opportunity to overhaul our current system and invest at home.”

Secondary market development

Where it has been acknowledged that alternative markets cannot be found, some are taking it as an opportunity to call for the further development of domestic markets for secondary materials to make up for the lost Chinese capacity, as well as a shift in responsibility for plastic products placed on the market back towards producers.

Viridor Resource Management Managing Director Keith Trower said the company had ceased its export of plastics to China last year and had identified new Asian markets for this resource.

“Viridor continues to explore new applications for recycled plastic and opportunities to enhance its polymers investment programme, which currently includes a specialist plastics recycling facility in Kent and a processing plant in Skelmersdale.”

This approach chimes with the wider stance of the industry. Ray Georgeson, Chief Executive of the Resource Association, added in a statement last Friday (5 January): “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 China issue is not one that is going to go away any time soon. The different approaches taken by the UK industry thus far are multiple and driven by the individual initiative of independent companies. What the industry needs now is a joined-up approach, with leadership from government, if it is to traverse the significant disruption caused by the Chinese bans.

Progress has been made in developing a forward-thinking approach to waste and resources policy, with the release of the government’s Clean Growth Strategy and Industrial Strategy in recent months, both of which dedicate significant attention to the topic, and this must continue. As Georgeson says: “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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