Regulation of waste is a key part of our work at the Environment Agency and we need to be ahead of the curve when we see that possible problems might occur.
More from: China crackdown opens up fault lines
One example of our forward thinking is that we are considering the impact of the probable cessation of exports of plastic to China.
In July China notified the World Trade Organisation that it would ban imports of 24 types of waste materials as part of its campaign against ‘foreign garbage’ and environmental pollution.
Two of the wastes proposed to be banned are mixed paper and plastics. China receives over half the world’s lower grade plastic waste and the UK has relied heavily on the trade.
The Environment Agency realises this material will have to find a new outlet. Our executive team are working closely with Defra colleagues to understand the waste flows and the options available.
Our biggest concern is that unscrupulous operators may try to enter this market and deal with this waste illegally.
One positive aspect is that if China disappears as an outlet then domestic processors of lower grade plastic will not have to compete with lower Chinese prices, so the business model may encourage development of domestic reprocessing and innovation.
If needed, the Environment Agency will look to provide guidance developed with the waste sector for safe interim storage options to cover the period from when the ban comes into force and new processing coming on line.
It will also be the role of the Environment Agency to support UK processing, enabling efficient permitting and regulation whilst ensuring that only legitimate operators are handling this material.
The agency is working closely with ESA members and is developing a collaborative approach to legislation and looking at ways to better tackle waste crime. We have had some good success in bringing waste-related prosecutions to court: last year there were more than 130 prosecutions against businesses and individuals, resulting in more than £2m in fines.
This should send a strong message to anyone thinking they can operate illegal sites with impunity.
I am optimistic about the future of waste regulation and I am confident the fears about the impact of the proposed Chinese ban on plastic will not materialise.
Gill Weeks is the board member at Environment Agency