It just shows the interconnectedness of all things – how a decision in the Far East can play havoc with local authority finances in the UK or perhaps cause increased fly-tipping and industry pressures for more reprocessing plants and incinerators.
China’s decision to stop being the world’s recycling bin has wide ramifications. It has effectively banned the import of many recyclables by setting very low levels of permitted contamination. Waste must therefore either go elsewhere or stay in its country of origin.
Some other countries will take those recyclables. But Vietnam has now started to limit some imports and there is unhappiness elsewhere in Asia at the prospect of taking in more of the West’s waste, supposing the requisite infrastructure exists.
Even where outlets can be found, the loss of China’s huge capacity creates a buyer’s market, and that causes problems for councils with contracts set up on the assumption that most of what was collected could be sold.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents England’s councils, sounded the alarm in a report last month. It warned that councils face bills running into millions of pounds because of the restrictions – with responses to a survey of a sample of authorities showing fears that additional sorting of mixed paper to reduce contamination would cost one council £500,000 a year while low paper prices would see another lose £3m a year.
Paper, card and plastic comprised 46% of dry recycling collected by councils in 2016/17. But since China’s restrictions took effect earlier this year, the report said the average price of mixed paper had fallen from £93 to £10 per tonne and the value of plastics had also dropped.
It added that, in January, the UK exported 54,000 tonnes of plastic, an 18% fall from the previous year, while around half the 407,000 tonnes of recovered paper exported in January 2018 now went to new markets in India, Vietnam and Indonesia and only the rest to China.
In May, Tom Rickerby, head of trading at The Environment Exchange, noted that the first quarter of 2018 showed the worst packaging recovery note generation since Q3 2015. And local government admits it faces a challenge to meet the current set of EU recycling targets unless there is additional financial support, and the Chinese ban hardly helps with this.
The weightiest determining factor is likely to be the Government’s resources and waste strategy, due in the autumn, which could try to help with more reuse or reprocessing of UK recyclables at home.
Depending on what this contains, councils could, were nothing else to change, be in the unenviable position of either facing down local public opinion against more incinerators and MRFs or seeing unexportable waste assemble in unmanageable stockpiles and the risk that yet more will end up being dumped illegally. The Environment Agency (EA) has warned that, were the latter to happen, there would be an increased risk of vermin, fly-tipping and fires.
By 2020, China intends to stop all waste imports, despite having as recently as 2016-17 processed around half the world’s waste plastic – including about 500,000 tonnes from the UK. China was also the destination for 3.5 million tonnes of waste paper for recycling in 2016-17.
The EA warned that UK waste exporters would “need to find other suitable markets in alternative countries or outlets in the UK”, but the latter would be “swamped” and the former “under pressure”.
This could lead to organised large-scale fly-tipping, stockpiling at regulated sites beyond their legal limits, increased fire risk and recyclables being landfilled or incinerated, “with the public and business losing confidence in recycling”, the EA said.
It has set up a team to deal with the consequences of China’s restrictions and is holding fortnightly telephone conferences to share intelligence and understanding of the issues.
A spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said: “We are aware of the impact of [China’s] decision. We are not dealing with this specifically as an isolated issue. Rather, we are looking at solutions as part of our wider and more comprehensive work with the Scottish Government on transforming council waste services.”
It is not just a UK problem. Things have already become difficult in Australia, where Ipswich City Council in Queensland has decided to send kerbside-collected recyclable materials to landfill after contract negotiations that would have seen “unsustainable cost burdens…put on the council and its rate payers”, according to Australian Local Government Association president David O’Loughlin.
He said: “This directly relates to China’s decision last year to effectively institute a ban on our recyclables by dramatically lowering the threshold of contamination to unachievable levels.
“As the fallout from that decision continues to spread beyond [China’s] initial customers, it is becoming more urgent that this issue receives greater attention from not only state and territory governments, but also our federal government.”
That may well be a sentiment that UK councils would share.
china waste accept
In other examples, O’Loughlin noted that the Australian Capital Territory government was “now saying the long-term destination of paper, cardboard, cans and bottles collected from Canberra households is uncertain”, while Hunter Resource Recovery, run by four councils in New South Wales, has warned of more stockpiling, while recycling firm Visy Industries has told waste companies in parts of Victoria that it would “no longer accept recyclables collected on behalf of councils”.
“The prices that local authorities get for their materials are falling or else the gate fees at MRFs are increasing.”
-Lee Marshall, Larac
Nothing is likely to get easier in the foreseeable future. The Bureau of International Recycling’s recent Barcelona conference heard Steve Wong, chair of the China Scrap Plastics Association, say that many recyclers had shifted their operations to Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.
But Wong added that Malaysia had stopped accepting applications for approval permits, while the authorities in Vietnam and Thailand were clamping down on factories that failed to comply with environmental regulations, leading to some closures. Taiwan and the Philippines were unable to take substantial volumes.
Back home, Lee Marshall, chief executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, told MRW he was keeping track of the situation and “we’re aware of elements of stockpiling – things have not got to their limit, but they could get there.
“Material is still moving, but the prices that local authorities get for these materials are falling or else the gate fees at MRFs are increasing.”
Marshall said this meant councils “have got to make up the difference” which has a knock-on effect: “It is still a bit early, but councils have to look at the finances they have and, if this continues, they may not go ahead with new schemes or will cut back those they have”.
Environmental Services Association (ESA) recycling policy adviser Jakob Rindegren said: “Our members have been working hard to ensure that recyclable materials have found alternative markets, but prices have been negatively affected which is hitting the budgets of private sector contractors and local authorities alike.”
Rindegren said a solution was close collaboration to tackle contamination better, and the ESA would press the Government to include meaningful proposals on stimulating the demand for recycled content in its forthcoming resources and waste strategy.
An investigation of UK customs data by Greenpeace found that UK plastic waste exports to countries including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Poland rose dramatically between January and April, only for these countries to introduce their own import restrictions.
In Poland, Greenpeace reported a series of fires at waste dumps. This led to interior minister Joachim Brudzinski blaming the Chinese ban for causing an “increase in illegal imports to Poland of materials that should not be in our country”.
But Whitehall is waiting on its waste and resources strategy before unveiling anything potentially radical.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Our ambition is to handle more of our waste in the UK. While there has been a significant increase in recycling during the past 10 years, there is more that needs to be done and we will set out proposals in our resources and waste strategy. In the short term, alternative markets have been found in response to the Chinese restrictions.”
How such expanded UK capacity will be delivered remains unclear. The LGA report referred to there being “little robust evidence on the capacity of the UK recycling industry to recycle more material collected from households”.
The association’s environment spokesman Martin Tett, Conservative leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, said: “Councils have adapted services in response to import restrictions in a way that best supports the needs of the communities they serve, and this will vary depending on the demands and markets of local areas.”
China’s stance may create an opportunity for other countries to invest in recycling infrastructure, although given the sheer volume involved it seems unlikely that this could be done quickly.
The alternative for the UK is that the materials stay here, which may create an opportunity for investors once the Government has made the policy approach clear.