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China ban poses looming threat for UK waste strategy

Victoria Hutchin

With the China import ban making itself felt and increasing pressure on the UK to achieve high recycling rates as we draw ever closer to the 2020 50% recycling rate target, some serious changes are needed for the way in which single-use plastics are produced, used and subsequently recycled. 

In 2017, the UK was exporting around two-thirds of its plastics to China - what was the largest global market for household plastic waste, demonstrating just how significant a player China has become.

So, what next for the recovered plastic industry? In the short-term there are other developing markets that can absorb some of the material, which would otherwise have been sent to China, including Vietnam and India, but, surely, it is only a matter of time before the poorer quality material also becomes unacceptable to these markets too.

The latest available data from the MRF material quality reporting, under Schedule 9A of the Environmental Permitting Regulations, shows that output plastic contamination rates from MRFs are as high as 12.1%.

The UK has lost a significant proportion of its plastics reprocessor capacity in recent years, with Closed Loop reporting losses of £3.6m in 2013, Eco Plastics having reported losses of £4.9m in 2014, and GFSL having gone into administration in December 2014.

Concerns about the UK’s reliance on exports for materials processing only seem to have amplified in recent years with the decision to leave the EU. However, the Government stating in the 2017 autumn budget that a review of taxes and charges on single-use plastics would take place, and a push for deposit-return schemes for plastic bottles, demonstrates discussions are clearly taking place at the top level, but is this too little too late for the plastics reprocessing industry?

What is clear is that in order to reintroduce some self-sufficiency into the market, there will need to be significant investment, and the key questions are, where will this come from? And how quickly can it happen? It seems that gone are the days when the Government could rely solely on the private sector to deliver the recycling performance it has ambitions to achieve.

In the past the Government has supported waste infrastructure development through the use of incentives, most notably anaerobic digestion with feed-In tariffs, Renewables Obligation, Renewable Heat Incentive, Levy Exemption Certificates and so on. Is it about time that the Government took a share in the responsibility for managing post-consumer plastics and put money where its mouth is?

The unpalatable alternative is for a proportion of these plastics to be diverted to RDF or SRF, resulting in the loss of valuable commodities, increasing reliance on virgin materials, as well as the associated negative environmental impacts.

Victoria Hutchin, associate waste & resource management consultant at professional services firm WYG

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