Could China’s import ban create a step change for UK recycling?

China's ban on the import of plastic and mixed paper waste raised fears that the UK would be plagued by mountains of waste, but amidst the hysteria the industry has been given the ideal platform to overhaul current recycling standards.

We’re less than a month into 2018, but already it will be remembered as the beginning of the end for plastic waste. The UK and the European Union (EU) have both unveiled plans to ensure that plastic waste is eliminated – the latter with a shorter timeframe – and businesses have responded with numerous pledges and commitments.

The problem has escalated to the point where plastics now account for 95% of the rubbish in the oceans. But before Blue Planet II shone the spotlight on this global issue, China committed to a policy move that created huge ramifications for how nations treat plastic.

Last summer, the Chinese Government agreed to ban imports of 24 types of plastic waste and mixed paper waste. The move, which came into effect on 1 January 2018, was designed to boost the company’s green credentials, including reducing emissions from its waste treatment sector.

Since the ban came into effect, the media has been awash with fears that the UK was heading for a recycling “crisis”, with industry sources telling Greenpeace that a “chronic shortage of capacity” was clashing with the closure.

There’s reason behind the concern: the UK ships more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China, and 3.7 million tonnes of paper waste every year. Overall, two-thirds of the UK’s plastic waste exports are sent to the country.

But as the Environmental Services Association (ESA) – members of which include Biffa, Suez and Veolia – points out, reaction the ban is nowhere near as dramatic as being reported.

“Our members were expecting some restrictions,” ESA’s recycling policy advisor Jakob Rindegren said. “They were expecting it and if you look at the recycling figures we’re meeting our targets. It’s not as dramatic as is being reported.

“A number of our members have the reprocessing capacity, and some are looking at how they can increase it. There’s a momentum behind an incentive to do the right thing regarding recyclability. A big challenge is to make sure there are other viable markets for the materials and we want modulated fees that incentivise and maybe even penalties for materials with less recyclable content.”

Fears over the ban ranged from councils being unable to collect some forms of plastic, to materials being buried, incinerated or sent to landfill. With the UK’s recycling rates stagnant for numerous years, the import ban cast real concerns over the Government’s approach to resource efficiency.

PRO overhaul

It is through this doubt that a small window of opportunity has emerged. The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is seeking evidence to support a “one-off” session to examine the import ban. The EAC will examine whether the Government has made adequate preparations. Considering that Defra Secretary Michael Gove admitted that he was unsure what impact the ban will have; the session provides businesses and waste associations with the chance to voice their calls for an overhaul to recycling system.

The EAC’s recent report on a proposed “latte levy” for disposable coffee cups outlined recommendations to restructure how producers place items onto the market.

One of the major changes that the report calls for is an overhaul of Producer Responsibility Obligations (PROs). The system creates a legal obligation for packaging producers to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled. Businesses can show evidence of their compliance by purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs).

For the UK, this cost is around €20 per tonne, but other European nations have an average for producer responsibility at around €150 per tonne. PROs from UK businesses currently contribute to just 10% of the cost of waste disposal, with taxpayers paying the remaining 90%.

According to the Local Government Association, this limited compliance scheme generated £111m in 2013, of which just £37m went towards collection. In contrast, it costs local authorities £550m to collect and sort packaging material. Evidently, the recommendations are being echoed by the sector.

“With China’s import bans on plastic waste and demand for plastics growing exponentially, there is a pressing need to create a step change in plastic recycling capacity,” chemical recycling firm Recycling Technologies’ chief executive Adrian Griffiths said.

“The UK Government needs to support and encourage more facilities which will combine mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic to dramatically boost recycling rates of plastic and compensate for the plastic that can no longer be sent to the Far East for recycling.”

Recycling Technologies specialises in chemical recycling treatment for plastics and believes that the approach will be able to handle 10 million tonnes of plastic waste globally, recycling it into seven million tonnes of alternative materials.

But companies like Recycling Technologies can only realise this potential if the majority of waste is funnelled towards recycling facilities rather than incineration or landfill. Waste recycling companies are paying between £90-£130 per tonne for disposal to treat plastics via this method, another sign that the system needs an overhaul.

Expanded capacity

ESA member Veolia is one of many that has expanded its capacity for plastic waste. Earlier this year, the company opened its Dagenham Plastics Facility, which will be able to reprocess waste into approximately 10,000 tonnes of food-grade HDPE pellets annually.

“For a few years now, we have ensured all our plastic recycling remains in the UK or Europe for reprocessing. We’re also actively moving up the plastics recycling supply chain and earlier this year officially opened our Dagenham Plastics Facility enabling us to keep plastic recycling in the UK,” Veolia’s chief technology and innovation officer Richard Kirkman said.

“As well as creating jobs and investment in the local area, recycling this material requires 75% less energy to make a plastic bottle than using ‘virgin’ materials.”

It’s a welcome step in the right direction, but research notes that 2.6Mt of plastic waste in the UK is currently disposed of via landfill and energy from waste (EfW) facilities. Although the ESA notes that much of the plastic that can no longer be sent to China has already found other markets, creating a burgeoning recycling mentality could help deliver the 25-year plan, improve job growth, promote resource efficiency and reduce emissions.

Cranfield University is currently exploring approaches to upcycling plastic waste from landfill and believes that a variety of solutions built around an “intelligent waste strategy” are required to help solve current issues.

“We are beginning to act,” Cranfield University’s Dr Stuart Wagland said. “With bans on plastic carrier bags coming into force in Kenya carrying fines up to $38,000 or four years in jail and proposed, Coca Cola is set to double the amount of recycled plastic in its bottles and bottle deposit schemes, improved collections and taxes being discussed in the UK to encourage recycling and reduce landfill. 

“We need to be proactive as consumers and lobby for plastics and packaging that have minimal environmental impact. Plastic growth is inevitable and although recycling rates of certain plastics are set to increase we should be reusing and reducing our plastic and implementing an intelligent waste strategy.”

The announcement of the 25-Year plan has rekindled consumer interests in plastics. In turn, this has led to large corporates committing or reiterating pledges to phase out plastics use. Ridding supermarket isles and restaurants of plastic straws is hardly a sweeping change, but it is a first step that reduces reliance on plastic.

Businesses will continue to reduce plastic exposure, almost as a reflection to policy demand. But to truly drive change, organisations will continue to lobby for Government to implement reforms.

“There’s a lot of momentum to tackle plastic, and a lot of support to increase capacity,” Rindegren added. “We’re calling for the PRO and PRN system to fund more reprocessing in the UK, but this won’t happen overnight.

“There’s an opportunity to do more, but it probably needs more funding and support from the Government. We do have a resource and waste strategy launching later this year; hopefully it will include new measures on PRO reforms to encourage more recycling in the UK.”

Matt Mace

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