On January 1, 2018, the Chinese government began placing stricter restrictions on foreign waste in an effort to curb its environmental pollution and to become more self-sufficient. This is bad news for the UK, as two-thirds of all of our plastic waste is shipped to and processed by China.
China is one of the world’s leaders in waste processing – in 2016, the country processed 7.3 million tonnes of plastic, which amounts to nearly half of the world’s recycled plastic waste.
The UK sends 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste to China every year. Since the ban, however, local waste management has become an ever-increasing problem, as the new policy results in a stockpiling of waste at processing plants. Many worry that the stockpiling may lead to incineration and landfill should the British government not find a better waste management strategy.
The Reliance on China
The UK recycling industry has relied on China’s market for years. The country accepts nearly 55% of all recycled paper and more than 25% of plastics. The ban, therefore, has a tremendous impact on the local waste management sector with the market for the waste suddenly gone. China has banned 24 types of waste, including household waste plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, unsorted waste paper, textiles and certain types of mining slag.
After the announcement of the ban last year, many British recycling plants have already stopped sending plastic to China, fearing that their shipments will not make it to their destination before the ban takes effect. As a result, many processing plants are seeing an increase of plastic build up in their yards.
There was also an uptick of sending waste to other Asian countries. Even the scrap metal industry is suffering; some scrap metal merchants are already considering moving their businesses to emerging Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines.
Unfortunately, the demand for recycled waste in other countries cannot fill the hole left by China.
Finding a Better Solution
Short-term solutions to the waste problem include increased plastic incineration and landfill. Heavy criticism met these suggestions, however, with environmental experts citing concerns about increased air and soil pollution.
Some long-term solutions focus instead on reducing the amount of plastic produced and increasing the use of recycled materials amongst local industries. There are also efforts to reduce the number of different plastics available on the market in order to simplify the recycling efforts to allow people to segregate their waste more efficiently.
Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, says it is high time for the UK to stop ‘off-shoring’ its rubbish and to improve the country’s recycling efforts. The Commons Environmental Audit Committee, on the other hand, suggests the introduction of sliding scale tax on plastic packaging. Under this new policy, plastic packaging that is difficult to recycle will be taxed more than those that are easy to recycle.
There is still much to be done in order to find a solid resolution to the nation’s waste problem.
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