A ban from Beijing on importing low-grade waste will affect roughly half the plastic that the UK currently sends to China for recycling, according to the waste industry.
Britain has become dependent on China for low-cost recycling to meet its environmental targets and has shipped 2.7m tons of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012, according to a report by Greenpeace, the environmental campaign group.
But in July, China told the World Trade Organization that it intended to halt the import of 24 grades of plastic, textiles and paper, which it said were often contaminated with dirty or hazardous material. Plastics, including PVC and polyethylene, will be covered by the ban, as well as mixed batches of paper and cardboard.
The consequences could be dramatic both for waste companies and local councils, according to the minutes of a meeting in September between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and representatives of the industry.
9月英国环境、食品与农村事务部(Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)与该行业代表召开了一次会议，根据会议纪要，中国的禁令对英国废物回收公司和地方市政当局都可能带来巨大影响。
The exchanges, obtained through a freedom of information request by Greenpeace, show that as much as 50 per cent of plastic waste exports will not meet China’s new criteria.
“Tonnages involved would be in the region of 70,000 to 80,000 per quarter of plastic packaged waste?.?.?.?No alternative markets are available for these quantities of waste?.?.?.?Storage levels within the UK will become tight quickly,” according to a handout from Defra circulated at the meeting.
In an email thread between the meeting’s attendees, released as part of the FOI, an employee of IWPP, a paper waste disposal company, said: “I simply cannot stress enough the impact this will have on the industry supply chain if these changes are brought in their current form.”
In the same thread, an employee of 360 Environmental, a waste consultancy company, claimed that the UK exported 264,729 tonnes of plastic to China last year, more than a third of total plastic exports.
That waste may now need to be “landfilled, incinerated or stockpiled here”, said Libby Peake, senior policy adviser for think-tank Green Alliance.
智库Green Alliance高级政策顾问利比?皮克(Libby Peake)表示，今后这些废物可能需要在国内“填埋、焚烧或堆放”。
Adam Read, a spokesman for Suez, a waste processing company with 70 local authority clients, said: “Over decades, market forces have pushed re-processing activity to Asia, but we are now seeing the tap can be turned off.
“The changes in China should be a wake-up call for the UK government to re-shore this valuable activity by setting clear, high-reaching sustainability ambitions that closely align industrial and environmental policy.”
Suez, whose clients include the cities of Bristol and Aberdeen, has been exporting to alternative EU and Asian markets since April as well as exploring the possibility of using the material for fuel and chemical production, he added.
Some companies, such as Veolia, which manages the waste of local authorities including Haringey and Birmingham, already process all the recycling they collect in the UK and Europe.
Local councils are already trying to adapt. Local authorities in Norfolk, which collectively send 38,000 tonnes of material to Asia each year, said they were altering the way they sorted their materials in an effort to meet the new Chinese grading requirements and had invested ￡8 million over the past ten years in their systems.
Other key destinations for UK recycling exports are Vietnam, which imported 32,000 tonnes of plastic waste last year, and India, which imported the same amount over the same period, according to Greenpeace research.
Ms Peake of Green Alliance added: “In the short term, other markets, including Vietnam and India, will be able to pick up some of the slack, but these will soon be saturated and, in the long term, these countries also will not want to be saddled with poor quality material.”
Defra said: “We are continuing to work with the waste industry and the Environment Agency to understand the impact across the sector of the Chinese government’s proposed restrictions on waste imports.
“We are also looking at ways to process more of our recycling at home as part of our resources and waste strategy.”
The UK announced in last month’s Budget a review of taxes or charges on single-use plastics such as takeaway cartons and packaging in a bid to reduce the impact of such waste on marine life, a problem highlighted in the BBC programme Blue Planet.
Meanwhile, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is reviewing the potential use of a deposit return scheme for bottles, and this week called for the aid department to increase spending on cutting plastic pollution in oceans.
The consequences of the new ban are already being felt. There have been 39 arrests so far in China for attempts to import illegal waste, while in Hong Kong, paper waste is being piled up in the streets because it can no longer be taken to the Chinese mainland.