Chinese ban on plastic waste imports presents ‘crisis’ for UK recycling

Restrictions on plastic waste imports in China pose major challenges for the UK’s recycling industry, which ships more scrap to the country than any other destination.


That is according to a report released today by Unearthed, which reveals councils may be forced to stop collecting some kinds of plastic as a result of the ban which takes effect in January next year.

It will mean a closure of the world’s biggest market for waste household plastics, and comes at a time when there is a chronic shortage of capacity to recycle the materials in Britain.

Industry sources said this could plunge the UK’s already stretched sector into a “crisis”, and endanger the country’s ability to meet its recycling targets.

“Now that China has decided they've had enough of our waste, it's obvious the system simply can't cope with the mountain of plastic waste we generate,” Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner, Elena Polisano, said.

China announced it would stop imports of “foreign garbage” in July earlier this year, saying it had found recycling material contaminated with large amounts of dirty and hazardous waste.

The new rules include a total ban on plastics from household recycling, and tough quality standards for industrial scrap, after the country imported 7.3 million tonnes from Europe, Japan and the US last year.

British companies have shipped more than 2.7 million tonnes to China and Hong Kong since 2012 – nearly two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports.

However, when environment secretary, Michael Gove, was asked about the ban last month, he told MPs: “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given sufficient thought.”

The research shows that waste companies are pursuing new export destinations for plastics, but are also considering temporarily burying, incineration, landfill, and even converting them into jet fuel.

However, Polisano argued that companies like Coca Cola should take responsibility for collecting, storing and recycling their products, and that sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic bottles should be developed.

She also said it was urgent that investment in recycling infrastructure be increased, adding: “It's time to stop kicking the plastic bottle down the road and finally get to grip with the problem at source.”


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