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Choppy waters ahead for the recycling industry

Dan Cooke

Given the emerging scale and potential impact of the challenge caused by China’s current and forthcoming restrictions on the import of secondary (recycled) materials, it’s no surprise that it was recently described to the Environmental Audit Committee by our leading trade bodies as ”the biggest problem the UK recycling industry has ever faced”.

This ‘big problem’ is by no means unique to the UK, and it’s often informative to consider how it’s being approached in other countries.

To recap: Last year the UK exported over 3.5 million tonnes of recovered paper and plastics to China for recycling, including around 500,000 tonnes of mixed grade paper (now banned). Overall, China, with its need to package all those consumer goods it exports worldwide, imported around 27 million tonnes of material from all countries for reprocessing, including 7.3 million tonnes of mixed plastics and 4.5 million tonnes of mixed paper, with the biggest proportion originating in the US.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that the 2017 bans of mixed paper and plastics are only the start, with further import licence restrictions and tougher quality standards for other grades of material applying from 1 March (effectively applying to anything being loaded onto boats for export from now). We could well be seeing just the tip of the recycling iceberg.

Take just one state in the US: California exports 15 million tons (sic) of all recyclables each year, 62% of which has gone to China in recent years. This total includes 9m tons of paper, 7m tons being mixed grade and OCC. 85% of this has gone to China, according to the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery.

A leading private sector service provider, Dave Vaccareza, of MRF and haulage operator Cal-Waste Recovery Systems, has said: ”It’s now a day-to-day battle just moving this material. We can only warehouse it so long and then it has to go to landfill. We have no other options.”

Like the UK sector, Cal-Waste is willing to invest in its facilities to produce even higher grades for domestic and international markets, as long as the state of California is willing to commit to provide support via public education and better collection input controls.

In Australia, approximately 600,000 tonnes per annum (mostly paper) is exported to China. Now waste collectors are ”scrambling to find new markets to avoid disrupting household collections and the prospect of sending growing stockpiles to landfill”, according to ABC News.

Cleanaway’s Western Australia Solid Waste Services general manager, David Williamson, said: ”Removing half of the world’s market is a big deal, not just for Perth and for Australia, this is going to have consequences all around the globe. Our company will have to pass additional costs onto its customers, including dozens of local councils across the state.”

The state’s environment minister, Stephen Dawson, has written to the Commonwealth urging it to intervene on a diplomatic level. ”To move towards a more circular economy in Australia, we want to turn this into an opportunity and create jobs in manufacturing in Australia. We want federal government to get involved.”

Even such a brief glimpse into the international perspective is useful to show that we are truly part of an issue affecting our core services at a global level. But positive and decisive actions closer to home – by our Government, traders and recyclers across the sector, by our partners in local authorities and business, and in the longer-term, by packagers, producers and retailers – will be crucial if we’re to continue to move in the right direction towards higher levels of recycling and resource efficiency.

Lessons from China should inform Defra’s forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy and set out measures to stimulate domestic markets where possible, and to make recycling and the associated infrastructure investable again.

Local authorities and their service providers must work towards greater standardisation in our recycling collection systems and remove householder and business confusion about what can and can’t be recycled. An improved quality of inputs for recycling would boost and broaden markets for secondary materials.

There certainly needs to be a balance between reduction, recycling and recovery, to move towards greater UK resource efficiency. Our sector has been tethered to ever-increasing weight-based targets regardless of real environmental impacts of different materials, and of the realities of the marketplace.

The positive signals towards resource productivity contained in the Clean Growth Plan, the Industrial Strategy and the 25 Year Environment Plan, and the growing focus on the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy to deliver real policy measures and competitive frameworks, will certainly be tested by this ”big problem”. It will determine how we, as a UK sector and with UK stakeholders, can work together and work with other nations, to deal with this potential ‘iceberg’.

Dan Cooke is Viridor’s regulatory affairs director

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