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Quality and markets are key factors for recycling exports

Marcus Gover

If implemented, the new restrictions from China (banning some materials and setting very high quality standards for others) will essentially prevent the export of all household plastic packaging recycling and all mixed paper recycling to China.

Currently around 75% of UK mixed paper exports and around 40% of total UK (ie household and commercial/industrial) plastic packaging exports go to China. We think the restrictions for plastics apply only to post-consumer materials but that has to be confirmed - household plastic packaging exports to China are probably around 25% of total UK plastic packaging exports.

We need to consider what we can all do, working collaboratively, to respond to the substantial challenges posed by these restrictions and to secure thriving recycling supply chains. For me, any response needs to consider two angles - quality and markets. As we saw during the 2008 crisis, quality materials will continue to find markets.

Plastic Packaging

PET and HDPE plastic bottles already have very strong markets (eg for food grade bottles, pipes, polyester fibres) and are high value products. Similarly PP pots, tubs and trays have good markets (such as construction and automotive products).

The challenge is with PET trays, PS and PVC. The markets for these are very limited. We need to rationalise the polymers we use in rigid packaging to HDPE/PET bottles and PP pots, tubs and trays. Designing packaging to be more recyclable is one of the goals of the Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling for England. 

If the quality is good and contamination low, HDPE, PET and PP will have markets. China takes a significant proportion of our plastic packaging but by no means all or even the majority of it – we export nearly as much to Europe as we do to China.

These measures from China will need us to make a step change in the quality of the materials we produce. If MRF operators can improve their infrastructure and processes to produce high quality HDPE, PET and PP plastics streams, they will be sought after by other importers.

Paper and Card

If China stops taking mixed papers for recycling, it will result in there being essentially no market for this grade of recycled paper. Some may be sought by South East Asia but really the UK will need to phase it out.

That means sorting mixed papers into newspapers and packaging materials in the UK before exporting these higher value products. High quality paper grades have good markets in the UK, Europe and further afield (including China).

However, meeting the maximum contamination level 0.3% for paper exports to China will be very challenging with the systems we currently have in place. It is a very stringent standard and I suspect that only separately collected paper can meet it.

Most players in our sector agree that collecting glass and paper separately is essential to produce a quality product suitable for closed loop recycling. With China taking 75% of our paper exports we have to question whether single-stream commingled collections will be viable in the future.   

Marcus Gover is chief executive of WRAP

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