China will not bin our rubbish any more – so what next?

China took 95% of our plastic waste in 2016, but a ban will mean that’s no longer possible

Ireland will not be able to avoid the aftershock of China banning imports of plastic materials and other waste for recycling.

The ban, due to come into force in days, will expose a lack of critical recycling infrastructure in Ireland and is likely to result in increased recycling costs for consumers, according to waste industry experts. More than 95 per cent of Irish plastic was recycled in China in 2016.

The Government has said it is concerned about the implications and is seeking clarity on how the restrictions will be applied.

"China is a wake-up call for Europe, it's a wake-up call for Ireland," said Séamus Clancy, chief executive of Repak recycling company.


China is taking this action “for a lot of the right reasons”, he said, naming public health and environmental grounds. “It is forcing everybody to look inwards; Ireland included . . . It’s a shock to the system,” Mr Clancy added.

The impact of the ban will not be fully felt immediately because of “hedging” – brokers have to take the waste anyway because of previously agreed contracts. Some will be diverted to other markets, while stockpiling is inevitable in Ireland and Europe. That will lead to pressure on landfill and incineration. The overall effect of the Chinese action is, in his view, “a game changer”.

National strategy

A clear, cohesive national strategy is required on plastics, Mr Clancy said. A new EU policy on the circular economy with more demanding targets will force member states to look at their waste processing infrastructure. A “huge debate is needed in Ireland” on the best course of action.

Ireland is recovering and recycling 35 per cent of its plastic waste, well ahead of EU targets. A total of 95,000 tonnes a year of plastic is recycled (the vast majority in China), but that requirement is going to increase to 190,000 tonnes by 2025.

Ireland generates 300,000 tonnes of plastic packaging annually. Of the 95,000 tonnes recycled, 40,000 tonnes is a valuable commodity for recycling, Mr Clancy said.

Light plastic film/wrapping is, however, problematic – though it can be converted to highly calorific solid recovered fuel, which can replace fossil fuels in “energy from waste” facilities, such as those in countries providing district heating. There is some capacity for this in Ireland, and there is demand in northern Europe.

A clear strategy is needed to target producers and retailers on the best way to prevent and reduce this waste, including use of technologies and alternatives to plastics, he said. The issue of the convenience that plastic provides in so many ways has to be faced up to by consumers, he said, – “everybody wants that but are they willing to pay for it?”

Alternative markets are opening up, such as in Vietnam, Cambodia, India and Indonesia, and while "waste will travel for a quid" Ireland will have to be cognizant of where its waste is going and such markets are likely to close eventually. "There is a need for governments and policymakers to understand we cannot keep shipping our waste abroad."

China will take paper and some plastics but will impose more demanding purity standards. Ireland as a consequence has to become better at recycling, and generate better sorted waste. For that to happen, it needs better infrastructure, Mr Clancy said.


“Recycling costs [for Irish consumers] may increase over time,” he accepted. Greater levels of capital expenditure on infrastructure; quality control measures and higher labour costs will ultimately impact on consumers as against cheaper facilities in China. But “contamination of the recycling bin remains the biggest consumer issue that leads to higher recycling costs”.

He added: “The positive is that ‘the China sword’ will create job opportunities in Ireland if we can put in place and manage a cohesive strategy with all stakeholders to manage our waste into the future.”

Irish Waste Management Association director Des Crinion said Ireland was about to experience "a six- to 12-month hiccup" until new capacity was built in Europe by "value adding closer to home".

Mr Crinion is managing director of Irish Packaging Recycling (IPR) – part of Panda Waste – which up to recently exported large quantities of recyclables to China. It also operates the Dublin City Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), and a commercial waste recycling facility in Ballymount, Dublin. It has been working on schemes to improve the quality of exported material. These involve reducing contamination at source and improving segregation at MRF – an investment of €3 million.

Last year IPR shipped 300,000 tonnes of recyclates, 70 per cent of which went to China. That has reduced to 60 per cent this year. Exports of plastics stopped in January 2017, as it knew restrictions were coming. Some 80 per cent of the exported material is paper, including cardboard, office paper, newspapers and magazines.

Up to 97 per cent of Irish plastic, including plastic bottles, went to China because of a lack of processing capacity at home. Wellman International in Co Cavan is recycling plastic PET bottles (bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate) but has to send Irish bottles to Holland to be washed before they can be processed here.

"We want to shorten that chain," Mr Crinion said. In recent weeks he has visited plastic recycling operators in Bulgaria, who convert plastic film to pellets for use in recycled products such as rubbish bags. "That is what happens in a proper, circular economy," he said.

Ireland had proven to be “more fleet-footed” than the UK in finding alternatives to China and this was, he believed, because it had been exporting waste for years – being a small country lacking the scale necessary to process recyclables. Countries less reliant on China had come up with local solutions using German and Italian technology to process plastics.

In reality, he said, Panda and IPR are probably the only Irish operation with sufficient scale of recyclates to establish a major plastic recycling plant. It is set to announce early next year the setting up of a €5 million plastic film processing facility with capacity for 10,000 tonnes a year.

“In fairness to Repak, it’s looking for new markets and new technologies. Believe me, everyone in the Irish market is doing the same and trying to increase the quality of recyclables. Quality wins in a tightening market,” Mr Crinion added.

Jack O’Sullivan, a consultant with Environmental Management Services, said Ireland is over-reliant on the recycling infrastructure in other countries. These difficulties would be compounded by the Chinese restrictions, while there was a fundamental problem with recyclables that were either too dirty or not separated properly at source in spite of being recyclable; particularly at domestic household level.

He believed Ireland is not complying with the EU packaging waste directive which requires businesses and retailers to take back packaging for recycling.

Change in behaviours

A combination of "awareness-raising, cajoling, incentives and sticks" is required to reach standards evident in places such as Slovenia, he said. Companies not using recyclable materials should be subjected to higher VAT rates, compared to those who do. Changes in behaviour were achieved before by forcing a switch away from leaded petrol and use of a landfill levy.

According to industry sources, Irish recycling companies want to process waste in Ireland but it can take two years to get planning for a greenfield site, and up to four years to secure an Environmental Protection Agency operating licence.

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said it is "certainly concerned" about the Chinese move. "However we are still unsure of the exact nature of the ban, if and when it will come into effect, as the European Commission is trying to work with China to extend the date of introduction," a spokesman said.

“The best way of reducing the impact of the Chinese ban will be to improve the quality of recyclates leaving recovery facilities, and finding new markets either in Europe or here in Ireland,” he added.

A new inspection process is being put in place. The National Transfrontier Shipment Office has met Irish waste industry representatives and presented proposals to establish agreed threshold levels for certain mixtures of “green listed” waste shipped from Ireland.

“Agreement on such proposed thresholds, as well as the inspection methodology, will contribute significantly to ensuring Ireland ships such waste without significant levels of contamination,” the spokesman added.

It is too soon to conclude that the ban would see more recyclables going to landfill or incineration. “But we have obligations to meet the targets in the Packaging and Waste Framework Directives which are due to increase from 2025. We will continue to work with the waste sector to ensure our targets are met”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times