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National Sword: the lull before the storm

Robin Latchem

Should we worry that China’s Operation Sword, which is hanging over the UK’s recycling industry, is actually a Sword of Damocles and the sector faces imminent peril?

Many think so, it seems. Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association, is in that camp, judging from his warning speech at the Kent Resource Partnership conference on 22 September.

Georgeson said he believed that China’s determination to target the quality of imported secondary materials (Operation National Sword) was genuine, saying “this time we are told it is for real”. Chinese regulators were tightening quality demands to “impossible” levels that supply chains, including those in the UK, cannot meet, he added. “There is an urgent need for the Government to get on the plane to Beijing to take a delegation to China and start negotiating.”

His association was one of four sector bodies – the others being the Confederation of Paper Industries, Recycling Association and Environmental Services Association – which later wrote to Defra minister Therese Coffey calling for action to support the recycling industry in the face of this onslaught [my word]. They backed a high-level mission to Beijing to negotiate ”our desire to continue to provide the Chinese economy with the secondary materials they need”.

Similar moves are underway on the continent, with the EU’s Market Access Advisory Committee in Brussels discussing China with support from member states for action. It is not clear what form that will take.

My reaction on reading the associations’ letter was that its tone was not sufficiently strident. The authors wrote that the situation “has the potential to be very damaging for UK recycling performance” – and yet there is real concern that the huge tonnages of paper and plastics sent from these shores will have no new home to go to and insufficient infrastructure and markets in the UK to compensate, certainly not in the short and medium terms.

There is always a danger with collaborative submissions that the final product is a lowest-common denominator and I suspect this has happened here. The language was overly diplomatic: for example, the letter refers to a meeting on the China situation at Defra being “an information-gathering exercise” whereas I understand there was frustration the meeting had ONLY been that.

Why no mention of growing domestic stockpiles of waste and the danger of more fires or incidents of waste crime? I don’t think it is scare-mongering to set out such fears, along with concern that public perception of the recycling industry in its widest sense will be heavily scarred by greater fly-tipping, larger-scale dumping and more plumes of heavy black smoke crossing housing estates.

The letter to Defra should, however, be praised for urging action to open up new market opportunities, linked to the Government’s developing industrial strategy. This could be done through WRAP and include ’demand-pull measures’ to encourage the use of secondary materials in UK manufactured products. It is a longer-term fix, though.

In passing, I was heartened by observations at RWM from Ian Wakelin, Biffa’s chief executive, that ‘price’ was everything and the market would adjust (bit of a paraphrase). More on the ’threat or opportunity’ discussion here.

That may well be the case in the longer term, but I cannot see it clicking easily into place when we tiptoe gingerly into 2018. Pragmatically, complaining directly to the Chinese may not achieve anything, but we should still shout our concerns from the rooftops to make sure ministers know what the consequences may be when the sword does indeed strike home.

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