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UK paper and plastic exporters switch from China

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Environment secretary Michael Gove has acknowledged that China’s restrictions on the import of secondary materials will “cause some issues” for recycling in the UK, and noted that affected businesses are now exporting to other markets.

In a written statement, Gove said data for the third quarter of last year showed increases in exports of plastics to Turkey, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia along with increases in exports of paper to Turkey, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Earlier this month both Suez and Viridor said they had stopped exporting materials to China several months ago.

China imposed a new year import ban on grades including mixed paper and post-consumer plastics. Other grades, including all other paper and plastics exports, will have to achieve tighter contamination rates of 0.5% from March. There have been fears that these restrictions will result in stockpiling and associated problems in the UK.

Gove said: “Since China announced its intentions on 18 July 2017, ministers have worked with industry, the Environment Agency (EA), WRAP, the devolved administrations and representatives from local government to understand the potential impact of the ban and the action that needs to be taken.

“We have engaged internationally to understand the scale and scope of China’s waste restrictions. The Government raised the issue with the EU in September. Alongside four other members, the EU subsequently questioned the proposals at the WTO in October.”

Gove said that Defra and the EA had made it clear to operators on their duties to handle waste in light of China’s proposals.

“The EA issued fresh guidance to exporters, stating that any waste which does not meet China’s new criteria will be stopped, in the same way as banned waste going to any other country.”

He warned that operators had to continue managing waste in accordance with their permit conditions. Where export markets or domestic reprocessing were not available, any alternative had to follow the waste hierarchy. 

“I recognise that China’s decision will cause some issues in the short term for recycling in the UK. We will continue to work closely with industry, the EA, local authorities and all interested parties to manage those issues. The Government remains committed to maximising the value we get from our resources, and is already assessing how we handle our waste in the UK in the longer term,” he said.

Gove maintained that tackling waste was a top priority for the Government and he set out a number of initiatives:

  • A resources and waste strategy due later this year
  • Clean growth strategy last October
  • An industry round table on plastics in December, with a four-point plan for tackling plastic waste: cutting the total amount of plastic in circulation; reducing the number of different plastics in use; improving the rate of recycling; supporting comprehensive and frequent rubbish and recycling collections.
  • 5p charge on plastic bags
  • Ban on the manufacture of personal care products containing plastic microbeads
  • Call for evidence on managing single-use drinks containers
  • Call for evidence on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single-use plastic waste
  • 25-year environment plan expected shortly

Meanwhile, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who represents Defra in the House of Lords, said a consultation will be carried out early this year on a new independent and statutory body to hold the Government, and potentially public authorities, to account on environmental commitments after Brexit. During a debate, he said: ”I do not want to pre-empt the result of the consultation, and so at this stage cannot be definitive about timescales for establishing the new body.

”We want to have detailed consideration with stakeholders and your Lordships so that we get the right decision, because we recognise that something needs to be done to fill what we acknowledge is a governance gap. I am not sure about the precise timings, but the whole purpose of an early consultation is so that we can move this forward.

”What we want with this new environmental body is to ensure that there is not a governance gap and that in our wish to enhance the environment, the Government and, potentially, other public bodies can be held to account. We think that that is very important indeed.”

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