Councils fear they face bills running into millions of pounds because of China’s restrictions on importing recyclable goods.
The Local Government Association (LGA) was told in a report to its economy and environment board that a sample of councils had seen one respond that additional sorting of mixed paper to reduce contamination would cost £500,000 a year, and another that low paper prices would see it lose £3m a year.
Councillors were told that the Environmental Services Association wanted to work with the LGA on managing cost pressures on waste service contracts. It said: “Action could include a roundtable event with industry and local authority representatives.”
The report said that paper, card and plastic comprised 46% of dry recycling collected by councils but, since China’s restrictions took effect earlier this year, the average price of mixed paper had fallen from £93 to £10 per tonne and the value of plastics had also gone down.
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.
But recycling the material in the UK instead would be problematic because there was “little robust evidence on the capacity of the UK recycling industry to recycle more material collected from households”, the LGA said.
The report said the “sheer number of plastics used in packaging makes it difficult for councils to sort for recycling”, and producers should reduce the number of plastic types in use.
It went on: “It is essential that industry rationalises packaging formats and uses plastics which are easy to process at the reprocessing stage and maintain a value on secondary markets.”
Uncertainties arising from China’s actions meant councils negotiating new waste collection and disposal contracts found that suppliers were unwilling to take 100% of the risk and “future contracts are likely to split the risk between contractor and supplier”. This also made it difficult to develop business cases for new MRFs.
The LGA also called for reform of the producer responsibility system, where it said the UK had the lowest level of contribution from producers anywhere in the EU. This stood at €20 (£17.45) per tonne of material, against €200 in Austria and €150 in France and Spain.
“Any new scheme must ensure that producers take greater responsibility for the life cycle of the waste they create,” the LGA said. “This burden is currently predominantly placed on council taxpayers.”