The global waste industry is about to be thrown into turmoil as China is set to implement its threat to shut its door on almost all categories of plastic and poor quality cardboard and paper. It is the world's biggest processor of recyclable materials.
Ireland, which has little capacity to recycle plastic, has been trying to locate newer markets since the possibility emerged earlier this year. UK and US markets are going to be hit badly because of their reliance on China for massive amounts of their waste.
In the absence of alternatives, those operating in what is a commodity market face chaos in the short-term, according to UK waste management experts; a view endorsed by the environmental group Greenpeace International.
The European Commission has been trying to get China to hold off on the move – while the international waste industry has to contend with confusion about how exactly the ban will be implemented.
The UK recycling industry has admitted a build-up of waste is inevitable, which may lead to much of the material going to landfill or incineration. British companies have shipped more than 2.7 million tons of plastic scrap to China and Hong Kong since 2012.
Simon Ellin of the UK Recycling Association said recent discussions the American Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries had with the Chinese government highlighted concerns the ban and tighter restrictions on imports were being implemented too quickly. "Clearly, as much as we in the UK, US and elsewhere do not have enough time to adapt, this is also the case with the Chinese agencies at the other end. This suggests there could be chaos until everyone is able to adapt or ideally a much longer time period is given for us to prepare."
“Until we get to the bottom of some of the areas of uncertainty, the Recycling Association is reminding the recycling sector of the need to keep material exceptionally clean, take more photos than were required previously, and be prepared that even this material can be rejected,” he said. Earlier this year 160 containers en route from Ireland to China for recycling were stopped in Rotterdam because of contamination.
The move is part of president Xi Jinping's drive to create a "beautiful China" with a clean environment, but it's also prompted by expansion of the Chinese economy and an emerging middle class generating huge volumes of plastic domestically. The campaign against yang laji –"foreign garbage" – is tied into new quality standards. Plastic and cardboard will only be accepted by the Chinese if the material is uncontaminated with other waste products. From January, contamination rates must be below 0.5 per cent, rather than the 1.5 per cent previously applied.
The World Trade Organisation ended talks with China over the impending ban with no change to the Chinese position. After discussions with recycling representatives in the US and Europe, it was clear no one was prepared for the new standards, Mr Ellin said. "Chinese officials were also unclear about what the new quality standards mean and what waste they could accept."
Some experts predict the ban will mean British recyclers have to find storage next year for 350,000 tons of plastic. This difficulty will impose additional costs on local authorities who – unlike Ireland – continue to be heavily involved in the waste business.
New export destinations
In July China told the WTO it would stop accepting 24 kinds of waste by December 31st, including difficult-to-recycle plastic types; electronic waste and mixed paper which was often contaminated with “large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes”.
About 3,700 shipping containers of recyclables a day are shipped to China, which has been the world’s top destination for recycling due to its cheap prices for shipping and sorting waste and low levels of regulation. As China clamps down on hazardous contamination in recycling bales, many of these shipments now idle in Hong Kong ports, according to Brent Bell of Waste Management Recycle in the US.
“Recycling is a unique industry, but at the end of the day, it’s a manufacturing environment. When demand for a product decreases, you can’t stop the inbound flow,” he added.
Greenpeace International, in a report by its investigative unit Unearthed, recently revealed correspondence estimating 280,000 tons a year of UK plastic packaging would be affected by the ban. In UK government documents officials warned in September it could lead to a “paradigm shift in the way waste is managed”.
Yet environment secretary Michael Gove told MPs in November: "I don't know what impact it will have. It is… something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given sufficient thought."
UK councils may be forced to stop collecting some kinds of plastic for recycling. Waste companies are pursuing new export destinations but are also considering temporarily burying plastic waste; incineration, landfill, and even converting it into jet fuel, according to Greenpeace.
– Additional reporting: Guardian