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Industry has its say ahead of EAC China hearing

Ahead of two Parliamentary hearings into the Chinese import restrictions on the UK secondary materials market, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has published submissions from interested parties.

They include observations on the impact on household recycling, packaging recovery notes (PRNs) and extended producer responsiblity.

On 30 January the EAC will hear from Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association; Lee Marshall, chief executive of Larac; Craig Curtis, director of the Recycling Association; Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association; and Pat Jennings, head of policy for the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management.

The next day, MPs will quiz Defra’s resource minister Therese Coffey under the inquiry’s scope to “examine the environmental impact of the [Chinese] ban, whether the Government has made adequate preparations and what the Government can do to ensure the UK’s waste is managed sustainably”.

The committee’s inquiry page is here.

One written contribution is from Johan Sundblad, managing director of Saica Natur UK, who says the Chinese crackdown on poor-quality material affects the UK adversely because there is no national uniform system, most collections are commingled and there are no incentives to coax households to recycle properly.

Saica suggests:

  • A nationwide compulsory reverse vending systems for cans, plastic bottles and possibly disposable cups
  • A preferred collection system for all recycling with the same message in all (or most) councils, where materials are separated into glass, fibre, plastic packaging, food and residual waste
  • Those households with separate bins who sort properly should get a discount on their council tax bills; contaminated material or unsorted waste should not be picked up

Sundblad says: “The solutions are not rocket science, just bold and courageous. It will mean more work for the household but lower costs and a better environment.

“If we continue mixing our recyclables and not doing anything, we will keep having a very lo- value material that has to be sold for incineration in foreign countries or landfilled, at great expense for the councils and eventually the taxpayer.”

Chase Plastics argues that there must be a split in the plastic target for PRNs and export PRNs (PERNs), and differentiation between reprocessing into an end-of-waste product and the simple exporting of waste.

It also calls for “a huge boost” to the end market for reprocessed polymers, saying it has been dwindling over the last 10 years.

“The reliance on an export market for our plastic waste has meant a void in providing incentives for manufacturers and retailers to use fully reprocessed plastics in their products.”

While it backs calls to reduce the use of ‘unnecessary’ plastic packaging, Chase warns that care should be taken not to replace plastic with alternative materials which may not be recyclable and may cause more contamination of the waste stream.

It concludes: “The degree of control that the UK has over what eventually happens to the plastic waste we export is minimal, purely a desktop exercise. There is absolutely no audit to see how much of the waste shipped is actually reprocessed overseas and therefore in fact how much ends up being disposed of via landfill, open landfill, being burnt or via rivers and into the oceans.

“That is not to say there are not many legitimate reprocessing sites overseas with good environmental records. But if we are going to actively finance export via the PERN, we have a duty of care to fully audit what happens to our waste at its final destination.”

In its submission, Isle of Wight recycler Westridge says: “[In the] short term, the Chinese ban will inevitably mean that materials which could have been reused will either be incinerated or landfilled. The current Government and those for decades before them have failed to realise the importance of supporting the waste industry in the UK, support that would negate the need to export.

“I am hopeful that the Chinese ban will have a positive long-term effect where the Government and councils will support projects to recycle and reuse waste within the UK. This would be a significant positive environmental change that would allow the UK to invest in technologies and employ people from within the UK to deal with [our own] waste.”

Lancashire-based recycler Envirofirst warned of the danger of short-term stockpiling of unwanted paper and plastics.

“This will most notably affect roadside collection streams and those companies and councils associated with it. Rather than trying to get these lower grade plastics suitable for the remaining markets, it might become more economically sound to send it to waste to energy.”

The company suggests that some Chinese processors will move to other territories to bypass the restrictions, which could mean fresh demand in the UK for wash plants or granulating sites.

“With the right assistance from the Government we could see an entire sub-industry emerge in the UK,” Envirofirst adds.

Bonni Jee, an undergraduate at Nottingham University, cites a failure of waste producers to take responsibility. 

“It is surprising that there was ever a need to send plastic to China, given how many plastic bottles are produced and used within the UK, whether for bottled water, milk or drinks – all major British industries.

“There should be legal requirements for bottles to be made with recycled content. There is growing demand for locally sourced food produce – there needs now to be a demand for local use of our waste.”

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