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Export figures show knock-on effect of China ban

2000 china containers

Campaigners have uncovered a huge increase in UK waste being exported to destinations such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Pakistan in the wake of China’s restrictions on waste.

China imposed an import ban on waste grades including mixed paper and post-consumer plastics from the start of this year.

Now an analysis of Government customs data by environmental campaigner Greenpeace has shown the extent to which other markets have been flooded with UK waste since then.

Exports of UK plastic waste to Malaysia are more than 200% higher in the first four months of this year than during the same period in 2017. Vietnam – already a heavy importer of UK waste – expanded its intake by more than 50%, and Pakistan by 78%.

Meanwhile some countries that have previously taken much smaller volumes of UK waste have seen their intake soar. Singapore is accepting 7,500% more and Thailand 5,400% more. 

While UK exports to China fell from just under 88,000 tonnes in the first third of last year to 2,500 tonnes in the same period this year, shipments to other countries meant the total mass of UK plastic waste sent abroad was down by less than 35,000 tonnes.

Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin called for ministers to intervene to boost domestic recycling markets and prevent foreign markets being overwhelmed.

He told MRW: “This is not a surprise – we knew it would happen because we don’t have enough processing capacity in the UK. But to think other countries will continue to take material in whatever form we throw it at them, and not do what China has done, is crass.”

Tighter import measures announced recently in countries including Vietnam and Indonesia showed that the UK would find it increasingly difficult to find countries to accept large volumes of waste materials, he said.

“It is not just plastics; the same thing is happening with paper. We need to look at our system because it will become difficult to find markets for our waste. There is a possibility that we will see more landfilled or incinerated.”

Ellin urged the Government to intervene in the planning system, the energy market and on primary material specifications to help create a domestic recycling market.

Roger Baynham, chair of the British Plastics Federation Recyclers Group, said the Greenpeace data showed “not much has really changed” since China’s waste import ban.

“There is clearly a question of whether these [recent] markets will continue to be sustainable given the concerns over the colossal quantities of plastic waste entering the world’s oceans, the vast majority of it originating from the very countries which have been or which are the primary export markets for UK plastic packaging waste,” said Baynham.

“The reality is that approximately two-thirds of the plastic packaging waste collected in the UK continues to be exported.

“Unless there is a fundamental change in UK plastic recycling strategy, potential investors will continue to be fearful that their investments could simply be undermined by the next low-cost plastic recycling markets which might emerge elsewhere in the world.”

Greenpeace UK ocean plastic campaigner Fiona Nicholls said: “Sweeping our waste under someone else’s carpet is not the solution to Britain’s plastic problem. Instead of just moving our plastic scrap around the globe, we should turn off the tap at the source.

“The industry is churning out single-use plastic at an alarming rate, with global production set to quadruple by 2050 – that’s clearly more than our recycling system can cope with. This is why we need the companies making and selling single-use plastic to urgently cut the amount they put in circulation, while ministers must come up with effective taxes and bans to make sure everyone takes action and producers are held accountable.”

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