Three reasons why the government should help us do more with waste

plastic-631625_1280UK recycling has a problem. Over the years, we have become reliant on the Chinese market to take our low quality recycling. But China doesn’t want our waste anymore. In fact, it says it no longer wants any “foreign garbage”, as shipments of low quality material from countries like the UK have “polluted China’s environment seriously.”

I’m referring to the National Sword initiative, through which China first banned 24 grades of material, including eight categories of plastic waste, unsorted paper and four types of metal slag. A few weeks ago, it announced it would be expanding the bans over the next two years so, by the end of 2019, it also will not accept materials like stainless steel scrap.

Other markets, including several in southeast Asia, have so far been picking up some of the slack caused by these restrictions, but it turns out they don’t want too much foreign garbage either. Vietnam has announced a temporary ban on the import of waste plastic and Indonesia has said it will be inspecting 100 per cent of paper shipments.

Let’s use our waste better
Instead of burdening other countries with UK waste, it would be far better to put it to productive use here in the UK. One of the reasons we don’t at the moment is that our resource policy has had a near singular focus on recycling targets to drive action. These targets ‘push’ materials into the collection system, but cannot guarantee that they will then be used productively. Recycling targets also don’t encourage products and packaging to be designed better for reuse or easy recycling. Hence, our dependency on other countries to handle our low quality materials.

Green Alliance’s new report for the Circular Economy Task Force, shows what the government could do to change this. It examines what policies, like taxes on the use of virgin materials and green public procurement, could do to ‘pull’ recovered materials back into the system and stimulate secondary material markets in the UK.

Why the government needs to help the market
In the face of China’s restrictions, the government cannot afford to sit back and hope the market sorts itself out. Here’s why it should change the framework to encourage the domestic use of recovered materials:

1. Voluntary agreements aren’t enough: Voluntary initiatives like the UK Plastic Pact, which commits companies to using 30 per cent recycled content by 2025, show that businesses want to use recycled material and represent an ideal forum for addressing quality concerns and working through supply chain challenges. But these initiatives thrive when they apply to all companies – not just the leaders – and when they are backed up by the prospect of government regulation if industry does not deliver.

2. Environmental impact isn’t factored into market prices: The government’s chief scientific adviser has warned that, because environmental externalities are not factored into resource prices, it makes “it very hard for alternative energy, mineral or metal sources to compete in the market place, especially in the context of widely fluctuating primary commodity prices”. Only the government can address this market failure so we can all avoid having to pay greater costs when environmental degradation “comes home to roost” in the chief scientific adviser’s words.

3. It supports the industrial strategy: The five pillars of productivity in the strategy – ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and places – could all benefit from more resilient secondary material markets. In particular, Green Alliance research with WRAP has shown that increasing the UK’s reprocessing infrastructure could provide 54,000 net jobs in places and at skill levels suffering from job losses due to globalisation and mechanisation. We have also shown that raising UK manufacturing’s resource productivity would improve overall economic productivity outside the south east. The UK’s world leading research centres and innovative companies could drive developments to support a resilient reprocessing industry and strengthen its manufacturing base.

And, if the government extends the logic of using pull measures for the valuable materials that China’s ban hasn’t targeted yet, including some metals and critical raw materials, it could reap even greater rewards for the economy. But that’s a story for another blog. Watch this space.

This blog is the first in a series exploring the potential for secondary markets for the materials we studied in Completing the circle: creating effective UK markets for recovered resources.

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