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No Defra response to sector's 'crisis' letter

A letter to resource minister Therese Coffey from industry bodies outlining “strong concerns” about Chinese import restrictions on waste materials is yet to have an official response, one month after it was submitted.

The letter was copied to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), whose chair Mary Creagh said it showed the frustration within the industry at the Government’s response to the situation.

Sent on 8 February, the joint letter from the Environmental Services Association, the Recycling Association, the Resource Association and the Confederation of Paper Industries urged Defra to work with them to avoid a potentially serious crisis.

It states they were “alarmed to hear that the severity of the situation was not acknowledged at Defra’s evidence session at the EAC inquiry in January”.

The letter outlines how there is not enough capacity in alternative markets and that global competition for them had increased, dramatically affecting prices. It said the scale of the challenge is “unprecedented and should not be underestimated”.

Creagh said: “This shows just how frustrated the recycling industry is with the Government’s response to the Chinese waste restrictions.

“The minister was not able to provide clarity on how the situation in China will develop in 2018 when she gave evidence to my committee.

“It is vital that the Government understands the implications of the Chinese ban for UK recycling, and work with the industry to keep local authority costs down, UK reprocessing plants open and recyclable materials out of landfill.”

Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association, told MRW that he was dismayed by the lack of response so far.

”There is nothing coming out of the Government. We write letters, we make statements, we go in front of select committees, and nothing comes back other than bland reassurances that it will sort itself out.”

He said it seemed as if ministers were ignoring advice given to them by officials about concerns being aired by industry.

”Our collective confidence in their ability to tackle this challenge is very low, on the back of the lack of response and tone, which kind of indicates suggestions that we are overstating the seriousness of problem and that we should all calm down,” he added.

MRW has asked Defra when it expects to respond to the letter. 

The letter acknowledged it was unlikely the UK Government would convince China to reverse its decision, but had outlined three main measures that could avoid a potential crisis. These included clarifying with China on import licences for 2018 and how the new contamination standards will be measured.

It also called on Defra to provide “legal clarity” for diverting material such as mixed paper, which is barred from China, to other outlets, and for the Environment Agency to be sufficiently resourced to tackle criminals who may “take advantage” of the situation by illegally dumping unwanted waste.

It also listed longer term solutions, which included prioritising quality over quantity, and driving investment to build new facilities, as well as a more robust producer responsibility system with higher packaging recovery note targets, replacing ’blunt’ weight-based targets.

Written evidence submitted by the ESA, the Recycling Association, the Resource Association and the CPI

Dear Minister

The Environmental Services Association, the Recycling Association, the Resource Association and the Confederation of Paper Industries have once again come together to express our strong concerns about the impact on the UK of the tightening Chinese import restrictions, in the hope that Defra will work together with us to avoid a potentially serious crisis for our sector.

Despite representation by our organisations, we were alarmed to hear that the severity of the situation was not acknowledged at Defra’s evidence session at the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry on the 31st January.

We here present our view of the emerging situation, which we hope will form a basis for the UK’s response:

The scale of the problem: The Chinese bans on import of post-consumer plastics and mixed paper effectively closed the largest global market to UK operators for these materials (with 1.1 million tonnes of mixed paper and 441 000 tonnes of plastics exported from the UK to China in 2016). The tighter quality limits coming in from 1st March and the severely cut import licenses are likely to significantly restrict market access for even more material. The scale of the challenge is therefore unprecedented and should not be underestimated.

Our members have worked hard to ensure that the affected material has managed to find alternative markets either in the UK, Europe or further afield. However, the reality is that in the short term there simply is not enough capacity in these other markets. The global competition is now increasing for these markets and they themselves are starting to restrict imports, which has had a dramatic impact on prices in the last few weeks. Low grade material in prolonged storage will inevitably deteriorate and will no longer be fit for recycling. Unfortunately, in these cases there will be no other option than to send it to energy from waste or landfill. And given the uncertainty there is a real risk the situation could get worse.

Short term response: We acknowledge that the UK Government is unlikely to convince the Chinese authorities to reverse the restrictions. However, in order to avoid a potential crisis there are still measures that can be taken, namely:

  • Making high level representation to the Chinese administration to clarify a) what the import licenses will be for the rest of 2018 and b) how the new GB standard will be measured and enforced. This will improve the picture of just how much material can still go to China. It is also in the interest of the Chinese that the restrictions are properly understood.
  • Defra must provide the legal clarity to ensure that material which cannot find viable recycling markets, such as mixed paper which has degraded in storage, can be diverted to other outlets. Whilst regrettable, ensuring legal and safe recovery and disposal routes for the lowest grade material is essential to manage this situation in the short term.
  • The Environment Agency needs sufficient resources to step up enforcement of existing regulations to tackle waste criminals trying to take advantage of the situation and manage the risk of abandoned sites.

Longer term solutions: Looking further ahead, the Resources & Waste Strategy needs to consider sustainable long-term solutions for managing our resources and wastes, and to prioritise quality over quantity. The UK needs to drive investment in its recycling industry and build new facilities through a package of measures to improve the markets for recyclable material. A more robust producer responsibility system with higher PRN targets and replacing our blunt weight-based targets with smarter ones that focus on better outcomes and overall resource productivity will be key to this. The Chinese restrictions have exposed a clear failing in our current system where we collect low-grade material to meet weight-based recycling targets with sometimes weak end markets and little consideration of the environmental benefits. The Resources & Waste Strategy therefore has an important job in resetting ambitions, and in restoring confidence in recycling and resource management in the UK.

The situation is approaching a critical point where we can either recognise the challenge and act to mitigate the impact or face a growing recycling and waste management crisis in the UK. Our organisations stand ready to urgently meet with Defra officials, the devolved administrations and the regulators to work out the details of the necessary response. We urge you to grab this very real and imminent challenge with both hands and be ready for bold actions.

We look forward to your early response and stand ready to offer our support in tackling these pressing challenges. 


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