Earlier this month China implemented a ban on the importation of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste. This ban on yang laji, or “foreign garbage”, applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper with China intending instead to replace imported materials with recycled material collected from within China. Last year, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3 million metric tonnes of waste plastics from countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan therefore the impact of the ban could be significant. Analysis of customs data by Greenpeace shows that the UK exports almost two-thirds of its total waste to China, with UK businesses having shipped more than 2.7 million tons of plastic waste there and to Hong Kong since 2012. Since China has historically been the major worldwide importer of recycled plastic, there are now justifiable concerns that much of the world’s waste will have nowhere to go.
What’s China’s problem?
The problem for China is not the quantity of waste coming from the UK but its quality, with imports increasingly being considered too hazardous for them to recycle. Many local authorities collect mixed recycling via a single bin. Whilst this saves space and is convenient for the householder, plastic is often mixed with other materials resulting in high contamination levels, leading to reduced quality. Changes to the way recycling is collected and reprocessed could improve the quality of material produced but would be costly.
The Recycling Association has recently launched its Quality First campaign, to raise awareness of the need for the UK to improve the quality of its recyclable materials. If quality is not improved, then other countries may follow China’s example - leading to the possibility of further declining markets for UK materials. Since we don’t have the capacity to use all the recycled material we are able to recover, it makes commercial and environmental sense to export it for reuse elsewhere, rather than incinerating it or sending it to landfill. Since many of the plastic products we recycle in the UK were manufactured in China in the first place, it made commercial sense that we exported recycled plastic back there for reuse in future Chinese manufacturing processes. It now seems only sensible that efforts are made to improve the quality of materials available for export.
RECycling Of Used Plastics Limited (RECOUP) is a registered charity and not-for-profit organisation that aims to maximise efficient plastics’ recycling. RECOUP’s Stuart Foster expressed concerns that there were indications as far back as 2008 that the Chinese market might be restricted in future but no action was taken in the UK. Recently, Environment Secretary Michael Gove admitted he didn’t know what the impact of the ban would be. “It’s … something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given sufficient thought,” he told MPs.
So what’s the scale of the problem in the UK?
RECOUP has recently published its UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2017 using data, estimates and views gathered from UK local authorities and waste management companies. This estimates that in 2017, there were 2,260,000 tonnes of plastics’ packaging placed on the UK market. A staggering 13 billion plastic bottles are used each year in the UK - that’s 36 million every day – 1.5 bottles per household. Overall, RECOUP identified a recycling rate of just under 45% across all sectors. 63% was exported and 37% was recycled domestically. The rigid plastic packaging collected for recycling from UK households makes up just over 50% of the total plastics packaging recycled. The remaining plastic that is not recycled (either at home or abroad) either goes to landfill or energy recovery facilities.
So now that China has stopped accepting the UK’s plastic waste, what can we do with it?
Plastics collected through household recycling could be directed to commercial energy recovery facilities which utilise gasification technology to generate electricity. Last year, Lichfields secured planning permission for the development of an energy recovery facility (with fluidised bed reactors gasification technology) for Port of Tyne in North Tyneside. It will generate 25MW of clean renewable energy from approximately 190,000 tonnes of refuse derived fuel (RDF) per annum. The proposal represents a £85 million investment in North Tyneside, which could deliver an £57 million increase in local Gross Value Added (GVA) per annum over the anticipated 2 year build period. In this case, the facility has been designed to process only non-recyclable waste, in accordance with the requirements of the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011. The hierarchy gives top priority to waste prevention, followed by preparing for reuse, then recycling, other types of recovery (including energy recovery) and last of all disposal (e.g. landfill). Although not ideal, the potential clearly exists for gasification technology to utilise a fuel feedstock which includes plastics which have hitherto been sent overseas for recycling. In addition to addressing the need to deal with surplus plastic, commercial energy recovery facilities could assist in meeting UK energy self- sufficiency objectives. For this to become a reality there is a need for the Government to invest in new energy recovery plants across the UK.
In the absence of sufficient energy recovery facilities to utilise all the surplus plastic, the ‘easy’ option would be to send the plastic to landfill. This could only be a short term solution, as there is already a shortage of capacity within existing and planned sites. Rather than being disposed of, recycled plastic could also be used to provide chemicals to the petrochemical sector, fuels to the transport and aviation sectors, food packaging and many other applications. Another option may be to make provision for the long-term storage of plastic waste, until new markets can be found for it. This too is problematic, not just in terms of the amount of storage space needed but also due to the susceptibility of plastic storage to fires.
Time for a culture change?
Historically we have relied on the worldwide trade in waste management to deal with UK waste. Perhaps now is the time to try and take responsibility for our waste and a good way to begin would be to rethink our use of plastic. Should we ultimately aim to limit the use of plastics to items which are required to be disposable by necessity for hygiene reasons, such as medical items - for instance blood bags - rather than allowing its continued use for items which are disposable for convenience only?
Retailers need to be encouraged to be proactive and reconsider their packaging to limit the use of plastics. An example of this is the pub chain JD Wetherspoon which has banned disposable, one-use plastic drinking straws. Pret A Manger has also recently doubled its discount for customers who use their own coffee cups, offering customers with a reusable cup a 50p discount on hot drinks in a bid to “help change habits”. Starbucks and Costa also offer discounts of 25p for customers with their own cup.
Deposit and return schemes for plastic bottles could also help incentivise behaviour, in the way it did with glass drinks bottles in the 1970’s. More recently the introduction of plastic bag charges has been successful and demonstrates that financial disincentives can also work. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that the number of single-use plastic bags used by shoppers in England plummeted by more than 85% after the introduction of the 5p charge. This is set to increase further with the Government’s latest announcement that it is to extend the uptake of the plastic bag charge to small retailers.
The widespread use of plastic bottles is of particular concern. RECOUP estimates that the average UK household uses nearly 500 plastic bottles a year, but only recycles just under 290 (60%) of them. Research is needed into alternatives such as compostable bottles. ‘Plant Made Bottles’ are manufactured in the UK from Polylactic Acid (PLA), an annually renewable plant source, rather than fossil fuels. The bottles produce 60% less greenhouse gases and use 50% less fossil fuels in their production. PLA is derived 100% from plants such as corn, cassava and sugar beet. PLA bottles bio-degrade in conditions >60° C, and will burn without releasing pollutants into the atmosphere. Plant made bottles are also fully compostable, again without releasing pollutants into the atmosphere. They can be used for a wide range of products including water, milk products and fruit pulps and so have the potential for widespread commercial use.
Just as I finalised this Blog, the Government published ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’. This is presented as a comprehensive and long-term approach to protecting and enhancing the UK’s natural landscapes and habitats. Included within the document is the Government’s intention of working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 (‘avoidable’ being defined as meaning what is technically, environmentally and economically practicable). Whilst this and the other commitments contained within the 25 Year Plan are desirable, they can only be achieved if they are supported by the necessary legislation - which may still be some time off.
In the meantime, it’s clear that to solve the plastic problem will take a widespread change in our cultural attitude and in particular our reliance on disposable products. This is something we can contribute to by swapping our daily disposable takeaway coffee cup or water bottle for reusable ones…. It could be time to treat yourself to a new cup.
 UK Trade Info Date 2012-2017 https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2017/12/07/china-plastic-scrap-ban-crisis-uk-recycling/ http://www.therecyclingassociation.com/about-us/quality-first
 http://www.recoup.org/p/229/uk-household-plastics-collection-survey-2016  http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2011/988/contents/made  http://plantmadebottles.co.uk/  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/673203/25-year-environment-plan.pdf