China and the circular economy: be afraid, be very afraid

It’s very telling that the Chinese president Hu Jintao talks of the importance of a circular economy just days before it emerges that his nation is cracking down big time on imports of poor quality recyclates – most of which are shipped from our shores.


Last week Jintao addressed the country’s 18th Communist Party congress and said in no uncertain terms that China will look to develop a resource-efficient economy built upon closed loop systems to meet key environmental goals by 2020.

“We will have a large-scale circular economy and considerably increase the proportion of renewable energy sources in total energy consumption,” he told delegates.

This, he added, meant giving prominence to building a resource conserving society in which every organisation, business and citizen had a clear role to play.  Jintao even went as far to say achieving circularity was now vital to the future survival of the Chinese nation.

“Awareness of conservation will be firmly established in the whole of society,” he stated. “We will improve laws and policy to promote energy, resources, ecological and environmental conservation, and speed up the formation of systems and mechanisms for sustainable development.”

Now couple this admirable policy stance with what’s happening on the ground – or rather, on the docks. A report in The Telegraph yesterday revealed that China may soon call a halt to accepting imports of low-grade, contaminated waste materials; imports which the British recycling economy has been reliant on for so long.

Dirty plastics in particular are facing a cull – the one material stream that UK reprocessors struggle to deal with. So far this year 17 containers containing 420 tonnes of plastic have been turned back on their way to Asia, according to Environment Agency figures.

Beijing has issued a warning that the country might soon stop accepting unwashed, household plastics scrap altogether. China’s growing middle class is now generating its own waste arisings – suddenly a steady homegrown supply of feedstock is available to tap into, and this could spell big problems for UK plc.

Once emerging economies like China and India, which have advancing manufacturing bases, start to prosper and work out how couple that economic growth with a more circular way of thinking when it comes to resource use, we could be left staring at mountains of plastics, or any other waste material for that matter.

The vast majority (70%) of all plastics sent for recycling in Britain are exported to the Far East. That percentage will plummet as more scrutiny is excised. We have to start thinking about material use, optimisation and end destination in a smarter, more holistic way. What is certain is that the issue of quality now needs some serious consideration.

maxine perella

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: | Circular economy | manufacturing | sustainable development
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