Environment secretary Michael Gove has said he has “not given sufficient thought” to the effects on the UK of China’s ban on waste imports.
China sent notification to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 18 July that it plans to ban imports of 24 grades of waste materials, including plastics scrap and unsorted papers. The ban will take place from the start of 2018 and has led to the UK waste industry urging the Government to take action.
When challenged over Government plans to deal with the ban at an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) meeting, Gove said: “I don’t know what impact it will have. It’s a very good question and one to which, I will be completely honest, I have not given sufficient thought.”
The ban has caused some consternation over domestic capacity to deal with waste, along with fears over stockpiling and reduced recycling rates – while for others in the industry it is regarded as an opportunity to increase capacity.
However, Gove said he did not have concerns over the ability of the industry to cope: “I think we do have the capacity. I think one of the striking things about our waste industry is how energetic, ambitious and innovative it has proven itself to be, even as we place tighter regulations on how it operates.
“We will be seeing more about what we aim to do in this space in the 25-Year Environment Plan, but I don’t have any worries.”
The long-awaited Defra 25-year plan – detailing many policy areas including food waste, reuse and emissions from landfill – is expected to be published before the end of the year.
Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, was sharply critical of Gove. He said: “It is shocking that, for the head of Defra, China is completely off his radar and he doesn’t know what we are going to do.
“He doesn’t appreciate that we can recycle only 39% of all the paper that we collect in this country, as an example. We have no other capacity and we are so reliant on China. Defra is out of touch and underfunded.”
Gove’s comments came the same day that Defra resource minister Therese Coffey told a separate EAC meeting that the Chinese ban was both “a headache and an opportunity”, and that she had encouraged industry “to provide the capacity that they believe we need”. This approach was criticised as being inadequate by members of the EAC.
Meanwhile, the Department for International Trade (DIT) recently urged the European Commission’s Market Access Advisory Committee (MAAC) to take action over China’s restrictions on secondary materials imports and the possibility that it is contravening international rules.
Gove told the EAC meeting: “This ban will affect everyone apart from China, and I believe the European Commission has made representations to Beijing as indeed our own embassy has. But the fact is that this decision is one with which we all have to deal.
“We may lament it from one point of view. On the other hand it may be an example of, as President Xi has shown, a higher degree of ambition of environmental standards. So I might deprecate the manner in which the announcement was made and the speed with which the change has been brought about, but I can understand why President Xi and his team choose to make this decision.”
The ban is part of China’s ongoing tightening up of waste regulations. “We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously,” China said in its submition to the WTO.
A new report made to the Chinese parliament on Wednesday recommended improvements to law enforcement and making polluters pay to tackle the country’s large quantities of solid waste. Hazardous waste control must also be strengthened, according to Xin Hua.
In 2016, 74% of the waste paper exported by the UK went to China, while 55% of our exported recovered plastics went to China and Hong Kong.