Why Michael Gove should be worried about the UK’s recycling crisis
Freedom’s Sentinel, Operation Red Dragon, Liberty Shield, National Sword and Green Quest. They all sound like the names given to military interventions of recent years. And, in fact, they all are, apart from one, which is a Chinese government programme aiming to improve the quality of recycling. And, no, it’s not Green Quest (a short lived American operation investigating terrorist financing sources). Rather, the programme seeking to prevent imports of poor quality recyclates is National Sword, a surprisingly aggressive title for such an environmentally beneficial endeavour.
Given the importance of China as an outlet for the recyclable material the UK collects (receiving more than half the plastics we collected in 2016, for instance), you would have thought that our environment secretary, like everyone else with a vested interest in recycling, would have noticed the operation and investigated what it could mean for the country. If he had, he would have discovered that it might lead to chaos for the UK’s waste and resources industry.
A worrying lack of awareness
China first targeted recycling quality in 2013 and began the National Sword programme this February, notifying the World Trade Organisation in July of its intention to ban 24 grades of “foreign garbage” including unsorted paper and all plastics in 2018, so it’s not exactly news. However, when he was grilled by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) last week about what preparations the government is making, Michael Gove displayed limited knowledge of the bans, to put it mildly. “I don’t know what impact it will have”, he admitted. “It’s a very good question and something to which, I will be completely honest, I have not given sufficient thought.”
Pressed further if the ban might see material stockpiled or, worse, sent to landfill, when it comes into effect in just eight weeks’ time, Gove again provided a less than reassuring answer: “No, I don’t believe so. We do have the capacity [to recycle it in the UK]. I think one of the striking things about our waste industry is how energetic, innovative and ambitious it’s proven itself to be even as we place even tighter regulations on how it can operate. There’s more to do, and we’ll be saying more about what we aim to do in this space in the 25 year environment plan, but I don’t have any worries.”
I say this is less than reassuring because, despite the praise the long neglected waste and resource industry no doubt deserves, Gove’s response demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation: the UK does not have the capacity to recycle the material we currently send to China.
Let’s just look at household plastic. All but five local authorities collect bottles, and three quarters collect mixed plastic pots, tubs and trays. Green Alliance research has shown that, given the availability of this material, the UK could, in theory, support 45 high quality, closed loop plastics recyclers. But the number of plastic bottle recyclers in the UK has diminished in recent years, and there is currently extremely limited UK recycling infrastructure for mixed plastics. For both streams, the infrastructure that does exist struggles to obtain material of high enough quality, which means that two thirds of the plastic that the UK collects for recycling is currently exported, the majority of it to China.
Increased risks of fire and crime
Consequently, the Chinese ban means that it will be difficult to find a new destination for the low quality material the UK produces. Already, before the full ban has started, a US plastic exporter (also reliant on the Chinese market) has reported that mixed plastic is “not going anywhere. You cannot go to China, you cannot clear it.”
This inevitably means that, in eight weeks’ time, when the bans come into effect, some material will either be landfilled or stockpiled here, adding to the already considerable problem of waste fires, as well as offering increased opportunities for waste crime (which already costs the Treasury and legitimate businesses £1 billion a year). So Michael Gove should, in fact, be very worried.
We should follow China’s lead
To her credit, Thérèse Coffey, the minister in Gove’s department who holds the waste and resources portfolio, is at least aware of the imminent ban and is au fait with its implications enough to recognise that it represents “a headache”, at least in the short term. She also knows – and told another EAC inquiry as much – that waste industry, despite its energy, innovation and ambition, says there will not be the capacity to recycle the material here.
In response to these concerns, Coffey says she has “encouraged” recyclers “to provide the capacity that they believe we need”. But, as EAC chair Mary Creagh has rightly pointed out, the “warm words of encouragement are not going to be enough to encourage businesses, many of them multinationals, to invest in reprocessing here”. Capital intensive plants that last for decades cannot be conjured up on a whim, but require long term guarantees that the UK’s approach to recycling will provide the required material.
The title China is bestowing on its recycling operation shows that the country is thinking about resource use in a highly tactical way, applying military precision to protecting the country from resource shocks and improving material use. While it will not help with the immediate “headache” the Chinese ban is posing, we would do well to do the same in the upcoming resource and waste strategy and set the appropriate framework for England, so that businesses and local authorities can invest in making sure that the situation changes. Encouragement on its own will not be enough.