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Sector briefs MPs on China challenge

Chinese restrictions on importing secondary materials pose severe short-term challenges to the UK recycling industry but offer an incentive for longer-term policy changes, MPs have been told.

The de facto ban on ‘contaminated’ shipments was discussed by representatives of leading associations in the waste sector when they appeared before the watchdog Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) at Westminster.

MPs on the select committee have set aside two sessions to consider the Chinese restrictions on imported waste following concern that the clampdown is hitting the demand for UK exports: 70% of recycled plastics and 66% of paper has traditionally gone to China.

On Wednesday, resource minister Therese Coffey and officials from Defra and the Environment Agency (EA) will be questioned. On Tuesday, it was the turn of:

  • Ray Georgeson, chief executive, Resource Association
  • Craig Curtis, director, Recycling Association
  • Pat Jennings, head of policy, Chartered Institution of Wastes Management
  • Lee Marshall, chief executive, Larac
  • Jacob Hayler, executive director, Environmental Services Association (ESA)

The panel agreed that the restrictions had, in effect, created a ban on imports from the UK and other exporting nations. It was a pressing problem which Curtis said was the biggest the UK industry had faced “in terms of quantity” and because of a “huge” oversupply.

  • For individual organisations’ written submissions, see links in box below

Eac pat jennings lee marshall

Eac pat jennings lee marshall

Jennings (pictured) pointed out that while the focus was on paper and plastic, the tighter market was also affecting metals, end-of-life vehicles and waste electrical and electronic equipment. She said she had sent the committee evidence on the issue from the British Metals Recycling Association.

Hayler said that if China became self-sufficient in domestic recycled materials within five years, as Beijing planned, all exporters would be looking for new markets. Curtis said it was already clear that some Chinese businesses were relocating abroad to send finished plastic granules or flakes into China to get around contamination criteria.

Concern was expressed by MPs that other markets replacing China, such as Vietnam, would receive UK exports but possibly process them to lower environmental standards with less transparency. Georgeson insisted that, if quality standards were maintained and environmental standards could be ensured, then exports should be acceptable.

Robert Goodwill, Conservative MP for Scarborough and Whitby, referred to fears of stockpiles of unwanted materials within the UK, and asked the panel if there were figures for the extent of the problem.

Curtis said there were not, but Recycling Association members were reporting build-ups, notably of lower quality mixed plastics which were not wanted by the supply chain. He said there was a need for extra facilities to sort the different polymers and improve quality.

Hayler said there was usually an increase in materials held domestically during the winter but there appeared to be even more stockpiled this year.

Marshall said he knew of one local authority that used kerbside sorting, which was generally accepted as the best method for higher quality. As a result, none of its recyclates were being exported, but the council had been ‘bumped’ by large companies dominating the supply chain. It had avoided sending the material for incineration at an energy-from-waste plant by finding a new market but there was no long-term guarantee.

Eac ray georgeson craig curtis

Eac ray georgeson craig curtis

In answer to a question about whether the industry had seen the Chinese clampdown coming, Georgeson said: “Some spotted it earlier and are now using alternative markets. There has been some shift in recent months but those [new] markets will saturate very quickly.” He added that he was not aware the environmental standards of these markets had been assured.

Marshall agreed that materials were finding new markets, but added: “The change could have been predicted but the pace and severity has taken us by surprise.”

Jennings spoke of the need for innovation in recycling.

Large parts of the discussion were about the effectiveness of packaging recovery notes and the loss of the Chinese market on efforts to hit recycling targets – for example the 50% for household collections by 2020 – and future targets, notably in the EU circular economy package.

That led the discussion on to Government policy and recent media reports that the UK was opposed to the EU’s proposed household target of 65% by 2035.

Hayler said a wide variety of metrics used across Europe to measure recycling rates was unhelpful. He also questioned whether weight-based targets, the current method, were the answer. He added that the 65% goal would be ”incredibly challenging”.

He said the ESA was undertaking two research projects. One was looking at what would be required on all sides – including costs – to hit 65%. The other would consider a move from weight-based targets.

He added that there could be a shift of emphasis from low to higher-value secondary materials, and the challenge was not ‘how’ materials were collected but ‘what’ materials were recycled.

Georgeson and Jennings spoke about recent administrations, both Labour and Conservative, “taking their eye off the [recycling] ball” and ”showing a lack of ambition” in the past decade. In response to a suggestion that the industry could have made itself heard more, Georgeson said it “wasn’t for a lack of asking”.

Eac mary creagh

Eac mary creagh

Committee chair Mary Creagh quoted Coffey and Defra secretary Michael Gove when they had been asked about the China ban at EAC hearings in the autumn. Coffey said it was “a good challenge” while Gove said he “did not have any worries”.

Georgeson criticised Defra for monitoring the situation in recent months but not intervening. He pointed out that a US trade delegation and minister had travelled to Beijing.

“We are more powerful if we have our government with us,” he said. “[The US] were seen to be batting for their side.”

Jennings said the Welsh and Scottish Governments had “shown a level of engagement we have not seen from the English counterparts”.

But the panel indicated optimism following more recent comments and the suggested policy direction evident in the recent 25-year environment plan. “Let’s be generous and hope he has got it,” said Georgeson of Gove.

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