This blog was first posted in Business Green.
A year ago this month, China closed its doors to ‘foreign garbage’. Plenty of organisations, including Green Alliance, predicted this would cause ‘recycling chaos’.
The problem was that, over the past decades, the UK, like much of the Western world, had become reliant on China to take the waste that we couldn’t economically recycle. For a long time, China had seemed happy to keep taking this mixed quality material to feed its growing manufacturing base, but the contamination began to take its toll. An earlier warning shot, Operation Green Fence, in 2013 – under which the Chinese began rejecting substandard waste and withdrawing import licences – passed with little notice. It should, of course, have set off alarm bells and ushered in some fundamental changes to how we produce, collect and recycle material, but the warning wasn’t heeded.
And so, last year, China stepped up Operation National Sword and closed its doors to 24 grades (and counting) of our recyclable material, including unsorted paper and all plastics. At the time, there were predictions of “mountains of waste” if the UK had to stockpile the material collected, or of increases in landfill and incineration. Green Alliance also pointed out that, without a change in approach, the industry would have to scramble around for somewhere else willing to accept our ‘foreign garbage’. And that, largely, is what has happened.
Our waste is now going to countries ill equipped to handle it
Take plastic, the material of biggest public and political concern. China took 40 per cent of the UK’s waste plastic exports in the first quarter of 2017, but this amount plummeted to just three per cent in the same quarter last year, according to the National Audit Office. Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia have picked up most of the slack. This is a problem, as these countries often lack the resources and infrastructure to manage the waste well, especially given its sometimes dubious quality.
Countries in South East Asia are a major source of ocean plastic pollution and some of this plastic, and other material, has been exported from the UK. But many of these countries no longer want our, or anyone else’s, waste. They are following China’s lead and banning or restricting imports: Vietnam stopped issuing licences to import paper and other materials this summer; Poland sent 45 containers of illegal waste back to the UK in August; Malaysia plans to ban plastic imports in the next three years, as does Thailand.
So, if other countries don’t want our waste, where does that leave us? In the short term, we need to keep improving how we collect and sort material to improve quality, so it can be of use to our own recycling industry. But that means local authorities will be forced to pick up more costs. The Local Government Association reported in October last year that at least a fifth of councils are being directly hit by rising costs for processing materials. It says the average increase in costs to local authorities as a result of the Chinese ban is an astonishing £500,000 a year for each authority. This is money they can ill afford on top of swingeing budget cuts. Currently, we (rather than producers) are ultimately paying the price for dealing with this packaging waste via our council tax.
Reform is on the way. Will it be enough?
The government’s new resources and waste strategy does promise to address this and plenty of other shortcomings in our current system. Introducing the strategy, Environment Minister Michael Gove explicitly highlighted the problem: “The consequences of every country’s behaviour are seen and felt across the world… Nations such as China are no longer prepared to accept lower quality waste materials; nor indeed should this nation be offshoring its waste for others to deal with.”
A major move to end unethical offshoring of waste will be the forthcoming reforms to the producer responsibility system for packaging. Although the details have yet to be published, the government has promised to make producers cover 100 per cent of costs. That is a good move but, on its own, won’t be enough. The promised harmonisation of council collection systems will help improve quality and can’t come soon enough, and we also need more infrastructure to recycle material closer to home. And we will need to help other countries – like those in South East Asia that have been burdened with our waste – to improve their own waste management infrastructure. The new strategy has also recognised this, and, amongst other measures, up to £66.4 million of UK Aid will go to tackle plastic pollution through the Commonwealth.
But are the measures enough to solve the problem, and will reform happen quickly enough? Or will we still be left with piles of waste to landfill or incinerate? These are questions we will be exploring with our Circular Economy Task Force at an event next week.
The photographs and podcast of our event ‘One year on from the China waste ban’ are available here.