Britain faces new plastic waste recycling challenge in wake of China ban

11 January 2018

Having relied on China for plastic recycling for many years, the UK recycling industry expects to have difficulty in coping now that a ban on plastic waste imports has been introduced.

Each year, the UK has shipped as much as 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste to China to be recycled. This represents more than 25% of the UK’s plastic waste, but from this month, China has imposed a ban on the import of “foreign garbage”. 55% of the UK’s waste paper has also been sent to China, but this is not as difficult to deal with as plastic waste.

According to the chief executive of the UK Recycling Association, Simon Ellin, speaking to the BBC, the association has no idea how to solve the problem in the short term, since the UK is unable to deal with all the plastic waste we produce. Significant changes will be needed in the industry since the UK does not currently have the markets to handle this waste.

It is not solely the UK that will be affected by the Chinese ban. Other countries in the EU will also face similar problems, as will Japan and the USA who also rely on China for recycling plastic waste.

Although other nations in Asia, such as India, will be willing to take a proportion of the waste plastic, there will still be more left to deal with than the UK can manage.

Michael Gove, the UK Environment Secretary, admits that the problem was not spotted soon enough. The government’s goals in the long term are to reduce plastic in the economy and limit the different types of plastic. The rate of recycling is to be increased and local authority rules will be made simpler in order for the public to more easily recognise which plastic items can be recycled and which cannot.

Mr Gove said that the UK should stop sending its waste abroad and there has been a suggestion by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee for the UK to subject plastic packaging to a new sliding scale tax. Under the scheme, the plastics that are most difficult to recycle would attract a higher charge and those that can be easily recycled would be charged less.

According to Recoup, a UK plastic recycling organisation, the Chinese ban on imports could cause plastic waste to be stockpiled. This might also mean a move towards alternative ways of dealing with the waste, such as landfill and incineration.

Peter Fleming, speaking on behalf of the Local Government Association, said that incineration would clearly play a part, but there are not incinerators in all parts of the country. He said that it did present a challenge, but mainly in the short term. It will be necessary to implement a waste strategy that is more intelligent in the longer term. Environmental groups would resist any moves involving increasing the amount of plastic waste that is burnt.

This was echoed by Greenpeace, who considers incineration to be the wrong answer to the problem, as it creates heavy metals and toxic chemicals. It believes that incineration is a non-renewable method of generating electricity and the UK should concentrate on reducing single-use plastics.