Emails released under a freedom of information request (FoI) show that Defra officials were told of the impact of China’s import ban on the UK waste industry seven weeks before environment secretary Michael Gove admitted he had “not given sufficient thought” to the matter.
A meeting on the impact of China’s import restrictions, arranged by Defra to hear industry concerns, took place on 13 September.
Industry representatives included the Environmental Services Association (ESA), Recycling Association (RA), Biffa, Veolia, British Metals Recycling Association, Confederation of Paper Industries, DS Smith, WRAP and 360 Environmental.
A number of crucial issues were aired, which Defra promised to follow up. But on 31 October, Gove told the Environmental Audit Committee he did not know what impact the ban would have.
An FoI asking for the minutes of the meeting and associated emails was issued by campaign group Greenpeace.
It transpired that Defra was told in no uncertain terms that at least 50% of the UK’s waste shipment export market would be affected – from the China ban or indirect impact on markets elsewhere.
Defra was told that between 70,000 and 80,000 tonnes of plastic waste each quarter would be blocked from China, that there were no alternative markets and that storage levels in the UK would “become tight quickly”.
The department was also informed that around 3.7 million tonnes of waste paper was sent to China each year, and warned that packaging recovery export note prices would rise as exports became more difficult.
An action point listed in the minutes said Defra would approach the UK embassy over contacting the Chinese environment ministry. It said: “Given the volumes of waste material impacted, there is an urgent need to explore alternative routes for handling this material in the short term. In particular to consider the availability of storage, alternative waste treatment and waste shipments.”
But an email to Defra from RA chief executive Simon Ellin a week later reiterated the urgency of contact between the UK and China.
He said: “I believe that direct contact with China is absolutely imperative at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Ellin pursued the matter through his membership of the European Recycling Industries Confederation at the European Commission’s Market Access Advisory Committee on 20 October.
The ESA also told Defra on 20 September that there was “very little understanding of the Chinese restrictions” among local authorities, and that if 50% of export capacity was lost it could affect their future waste strategies.
Defra and Environment Agency action points from the 13 September meeting
- An approach to the Chinese environment ministry via the British Embassy or a UK trade mission. View to be sought from the Department for International Trade and the embassy on the best way to handle such an approach. One industry representative offered direct support. Defra to approach embassy.
- Given the volumes of waste material impacted there is an urgent need to explore alternative routes for handling this material in the short term. In particular to consider the availability of storage, alternative waste treatment and waste shipments. Further work is needed to scope out the scenarios for each impacted material and regulatory responses required, with a short-term position needed urgently.
- Given the likely impacts on PERNs, there is a need to scope out in more detail what may be required to address the consequences on reaching existing targets, possible regulatory signals and, in the longer term, the need to review targets.
- If implemented in full the Chinese proposals will result in a paradigm shift in the way waste is managed to both increase the quality of secondary raw materials but also the need to find markets for those materials, including looking at ways of boosting domestic reprocessing.
- Engage with other stakeholders to understand wider impacts, in particular the local authority organisations such as the Local Government Association and Larac.