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How Do the World’s Recyclers Solve a Problem Like China?

Image Credit: Adi Constantin

For decades, China has been an open door for foreign waste, importing recycled material from around the world to help feed its manufacturing boom. In 2016, the country imported 7.3 million metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries. However, this is all about to change. Last year, the country notified the World Trade Organization its intention to ban 24 types of solid waste material by the end of 2017 — including unsorted paper and plastics.

This crackdown on imports, known officially as China’s National Sword programme, took complete effect on 1 January 2018. But already, some recycling companies are scrambling to find alternative markets for their waste, particularly for lower-grade or heavily contaminated materials. There are growing fears — especially in the US, Europe and UK — that such recyclables may have to be temporarily stockpiled or even landfilled.

Part of China’s plan is to restrict waste imports of a contamination level to just 0.3 percent — although recent reports suggest this level could be relaxed slightly. In light of these restrictions, Joan Marc Simon, director at Zero Waste Europe, says Western economies will need to step up their efforts to produce higher-quality recyclates, which means separating waste materials at source and investing in better recycling sorting facilities.

“The current system of comingled collection of recyclables in the US rarely allows for these purity rates — this might trigger either abandoning collection of recyclables, or changing systems to step up the quality and quantity,” he says. “In Europe, the quality and quantity of plastic packaging collection is comparatively better, but an extra effort will be needed. Otherwise, what it will mean is that plastic packaging will not be allowed and only plastic industrial waste will be exported to China.”

Simon added that from a global perspective, China’s import policies are already having an impact on separate collection schemes. He points to the US as an example, where the majority of plastic packaging on the West coast has previously been collected and shipped to China: “There have been many case of municipalities discontinuing the collection of plastic packaging because it is cheaper to landfill it than to recycle it,” he says.

Meanwhile in the UK, China’s bid to clean up its environmental image could “bring about a seismic shift,” according to Libby Peake, senior policy adviser at the Green Alliance.

“The Chinese Government’s previous initiative in this area, the much more gentle-sounding ‘Operation Green Fence’ in 2013, saw the rejection of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of poor-quality recyclate,” she recalls. “This should have been a wakeup call and was a missed opportunity to address some of the problems with our current waste and recycling system.”

Peake says that the UK doesn’t have enough facilities in place to recycle material such as mixed papers and plastics.

“We currently export around two-thirds of our plastic and, following the fall in the price of oil and continued problems with contamination, the number of plastic bottle recyclers in the UK has diminished in recent years. For both bottles and mixed plastics, the domestic infrastructure that does exist struggles to obtain material of high enough quality.”

She added: “The Chinese ban on ‘foreign garbage’ is set to be much more than a short-term headache, and we will inevitably see more material landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled or even fly-tipped with all the risks that entails.”

According to Peake, countries such as the UK and US could soon find themselves at a crossroads — faced with a choice between waste management or resource stewardship.

“We could find another country to accept the low-quality material we can’t recycle here or invest in opening more landfills and building more incinerators,” she says. “But the much better approach would be to address as many quality issues as we can in the short term at the same time as setting in motion a long-term plan for a resource-efficient future — one where waste is minimised in the first instance, products are designed for reuse or remanufacturing, and any material that can’t be minimised is collected consistently so it can be used as a secondary resource here.”

Likewise, Simon also senses opportunity across Europe to build a more circular economy for materials such as plastic — especially as the EU’s Circular Economy package starts to bed in over the next few years.

“We have an amazing opportunity to keep this plastic for recycling in Europe, thereby contributing to a real circular economy and also allowing for a traceability of materials that today doesn’t exist.”

The challenge, he says, will be connecting material supply with demand in the European market: “The secondary raw material for plastics in Europe is still being created with companies looking for recycled plastic of a quality that is not yet offered.”

The same holds true for the UK — while waste policy is devolved at the national level, a new resources and waste strategy is expected for England this year along with other environmental policies that might look to align resource use with industrial strategies.

Paul Vanston, chief executive at packaging industry group INCPEN, is hopeful for such political leadership.

“For some years many of us have called for a materials or resources strategy with the clear intention being to manage the risks and dependencies the UK has on other countries. That could be in terms of sources of virgin or reprocessed materials, including decisions on flows of materials around the globe,” he says. “It seems intrinsic to do more to explore home-grown solutions, capacity and infrastructure as a means to reduce the UK’s dependencies on other nations. I can’t help but think that the need for a materials strategy increases as the UK prepares to leave the EU.”


Maxine is an environmental journalist working in the field of corporate sustainability, circular economy and resource risk

[Read more about Maxine Perella]