A Chinese ban on plastic that brought the world some good
The EU has taken the radical step of committing to ensuring all plastic in Europe will be recyclable by 2030
People and businesses across the European Union produce 58 million tonnes of plastic every year; more than 40 per cent of that total comes from packaging alone. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
For many, the image that brought the crisis home came when David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II documentary showed an albatross unwittingly feeding its chicks plastic.
Making his case unflinchingly, Attenborough called on viewers to help reduce the world’s plastic waste. Millions of viewers across the world responded, with palpable concern.
However, seismic changes had happened earlier. The biggest shake-up was the economic grenade thrown into the recycling marketplace by China’s decision to refuse to be home to massive quantities of plastic and paper.
Many of the world’s major economies had become over reliant on that outlet – unable to deal with their own waste, they had become used to sending it out of sight, out of mind. Unquestionably, it concentrated minds in Europe. In January, the European Union’s Plastics Strategy took the radical step of committing to ensuring all plastic in Europe will be recyclable by 2030.
People and businesses across the European Union produce 58 million tonnes of plastic every year; more than 40 per cent of that total comes from packaging alone.
A fifth is produced making consumer and household goods, everything from toothpaste to kitchen items, while nearly a tenth of all the plastic used ends up in cars and trucks.
Just 30 per cent of the EU’s plastic is recycled – 39 per cent of it is incinerated, while 31 per cent is in landfills, according to PlasticsEurope. More than 60 per cent of plastic waste still comes from packaging, but only 40 per cent of that packaging is recycled.
In 2015, Ireland generated 282 148 tonnes of plastic packaging waste, according to Eurostat: 60.7kg plastic packaging waste was produced by each person in the country that year – just 34 per cent of it was recycled.
China accepted seven million tonnes of plastic scrap in 2016 –more than half of all the waste plastic exported globally that year. Up to 97 per cent of Irish plastic went to China because of our inability to deal with it at home.
The closure of small plastic processors in China, which processed the most difficult plastic –such as film and soft plastics – signalled a new scenario.
Beijing is taking a harder line on imported pollution, though it still has its own, and growing plastic problems while it serves the needs of an emerging middle class.
Not everything in Beijing’s plan is working seamlessly. There are indications that some Chinese paper mills are already short of stock and there may be some row-back on recyclable high-quality paper.
However, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which has responsibility for Irish waste policy, believes there will be no going back to the way it was.
The bottom line is that mixed paper and difficult plastics are no longer traded commodities. What’s more, significant amounts of money have to be paid for their disposal.
For the consumer, recycling industry figures in Ireland indicate the upheaval caused by the Chinese decision will translate into a small increase in green bin charges.
Recycling only works economically if products can be cleaned and segregated, and some of that work must be done by the householder or business producing the waste.
However, Séamus Clancy, chief executive of Repak recycling company, believes the Chinese market is in effect closed due to unachievable standards on contamination levels.
This has led to a price collapse in the value of plastic. Recycling costs have gone through the roof, exacerbated by next to no infrastructure in Europe for light plastic.
Paper may get back into China, but plastics has become “a dirty word”, with its positives lost in translation, though PET bottles have retained their value.
However, Clancy argues that now is not the time for panic, or knee-jerk decisions. Ireland needs to have the right rules in place, and the Government is beginning to engage, he believes.
The Attenborough-prompted discussions among the public help, too. The increasing debate has led the European Commission to raise the possibility of a plastics tax.
Clancy, however, does not favour a plastics tax, but he suggests that higher fees to recycle the most difficult types of plastic will have to be considered.
Meanwhile, the recycling industry will have to up its game.
It no longer must be allowed to cherry-pick the most valuable streams. Businesses will have to cut the volume of waste produced. Home-owners will have to do better at segregating waste, he argues.
In December 2017, Irish Waste Management Association director Des Crinion predicted Ireland was about to experience “a six- to 12-month hiccup” until new capacity was built in Europe.
Since then, however, the fallout caused by the Chinese decision has been worse than he had feared. Instead of a hiccup, there has been world-wide market failure, he says now.
The US is dumping plastic, the UK is stockpiling it, while Australia is stockpiling or simply not collecting it. In Ireland, stockpiling is prohibited under EPA fire safety rules.
Crinion sees paper recycling going down the same route, as China has issued import licences for a fraction of what it usually takes – as a consequence prices are crashing.
Opportunities for Ireland
However, there are opportunities for Ireland if it moves agilely, says Crinion, who is managing director of Irish Packaging Recycling – part of Panda Waste.
In 2016, IPR shipped 300,000 tonnes of recyclates. Seventy per cent went to China, reducing to 60 per cent last year. Exports of plastics stopped in January 2017, as it knew restrictions were coming.
It has been improving the quality of exported material at Dublin City Materials Recovery Facility by reducing contamination at source and by improving segregation.
Crinion has visited plastic recycling operators in Europe, who convert plastic film to pellets for use in recycled products such as rubbish bags – “what happens in a proper, circular economy”, he says.
He hopes to build a facility to recycle plastic film “in Ireland and/or in England by the end of the year”.
Already, Ireland has proven to be “more fleet-footed” than the UK in finding alternatives to China. Partly, this occurred because Ireland has been exporting waste for years, being a small country lacking the scale necessary to process recyclables.
Their approach is to find markets and take lower prices to ensure waste mountains are moved. “Most important is to continue recycling, focus on quality and look for new markets,” he says.
Not collecting or dumping recyclates, he says, would send the wrong message. Ireland has done well on recycling rates, while segregation habits among the public are improving
Most Irish people back measures to cut plastic waste: 88 per cent of us say we are worried about its environmental impact, while 81 per cent are worried about the impact plastics can have on their health, according to Eurobarometer.
The same poll showed virtual unanimity on the actions others should take: 98 per cent think products should be easier to recycle; 97 per cent think that shops and industry should cut packaging; 98 per cent think councils should do better.
Nearly a third of us say we avoid buying over-packaged goods, compared with a quarter across the European Union; while 87 per say they avoid single-use cups where possible, compared with a 75 per cent average.
Even more positively, 72 per cent of Irish people polled by Eurobarometer believe they and every other consumer should be charged more for single-use plastic knives and forks.
Sometimes, however, there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. Just 30 per cent of us say we avoid free single-use cutlery, compared with a 34 per cent EU average – even though we say we are willing to pay for it.