Is China’s ban on low-grade plastic waste a headache or opportunity for those in the UK who currently export to the Far East?

Written by: Malcolm Odlin | Published:
Malcolm Odlin, purchasing manager at Luxus

China's restriction on secondary material imports means the UK’s recycling and waste industry faces an urgent challenge next year.

In 2016 alone, it was estimated that China imported 7.3 million tonnes of plastic scrap from Europe, Japan and the US. With import permits not being renewed in recent months, shipments are already slowing ahead of the January 2018 deadline. How will the industry cope with this development, and is innovation alone the answer?

At the end of the year, the ‘China National Sword 2017’ regulations will officially take effect. China will no longer import foreign low-grade plastics waste and unsorted paper.

These regulations aim to increase the quality of recycled commodities entering China by restricting the amount of contamination permitted to just 0.5% for all secondary grade material.

China notified the World Trade Organization in July that it will ban 24 kinds of plastic, paper and metal recyclables, including PET, PVC, polyethylene, polystyrene and other scrap polymers.

This has left the UK’s recycling and waste industry reeling, with just a short timescale to respond. Britain’s supply chain has been hampered by years of over-reliance on China to provide a market for our badly sorted, poor-quality waste.

What next for the UK?

In response, recycling industry bodies have urged the government to push for the continuation of providing secondary materials to China. Calls have also been made for WRAP’s funding to be reviewed and the introduction of ‘demand-pull’ measures to help open up new markets for this waste.

Yet it is the government’s refusal to acknowledge the urgency of this problem or signal its support for these proposed measures that is now hampering progress.

For many years now the UK has become reliant on the export of low-quality recyclate, which the current producer responsibility system has encouraged. Despite repeated requests from the recycling industry for change, the government has steadfastly refused to take action, and now with the ban things are set to get far worse.

Speaking to MPs at an Environmental Audit Committee, Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey said: “I can understand why it’s a headache but actually the overall direction China is taking is to say we want to have higher quality of waste we are going to process.

“So it’s a good challenge to us, to our industry, to us as a country to improve the quality of waste we have… It gives us an opportunity to reprocess more here, rather than exporting to the other side of the world just because it’s a bit cheaper to do so.”

A positive, yet some would say ‘rose tinted’, response that fails to acknowledge our immediate surplus waste issue or our capacity as an industry to cope.

This year we have already begun to see a slowdown in waste exporting and given that the UK doesn’t currently have the infrastructure, more processing facilities are necessary which will demand serious capital investment and take decades to deliver.

Immediate impact

As China has dominated the market for plastics waste for many years, there is real concern that this poor-quality material will simply have nowhere to go since it doesn’t meet the standards required by UK recyclers.

It is generally assumed that the supply chain will be able to sort out this problem. With the absence right now, however, of alternative markets to replace the UK’s dependence on China, there is little immediate hope.

Instead, there is a real likelihood of businesses stockpiling waste plastics until new markets can be found. But for how long, given that long-term storage also presents a potential fire risk for many businesses. Other alternatives for this waste could be incineration or new export markets such as Vietnam.

Also a concern is the knock-on effect for local authorities as recycling rates are at real risk of not being met for the first time, potentially damaging consumer confidence in recycling.

A question of quality

Long-term sustainable markets for recycled plastics are needed if we are to encourage further investment in our waste and recycling infrastructure so we are no longer reliant on exporting.

This urgent situation is a result of too many years of poorly collected and sorted waste. Greater investment in MRFs is needed and a national policy on waste collection that moves away from the co-mingled schemes to help drive up quality.

Exporting has been the cheap ‘end-of-life’ solution for our badly collected and sorted waste. It is only by allowing this situation to continue that we have been able to meet our recycling targets.

This acceptance of poor-quality mixed waste has created a situation where the usable percentage of a typical baled polymer has dropped to a low of just 40-50%.

Encouragingly, many more producers are increasingly keen to develop circular economy principles. We believe this is a critical first step, since mixed polymers can’t be separated in the recycling industry.

An improved understanding of the recycling process from producers could help designers to avoid contaminants in the recycled product and improve the overall efficiency of current and new sorting methods.

Pushing the boundaries

The need to capture new waste streams and divert them into efficient recovery processing is now recognised as key to saving costs and reducing environmental impacts.

In response, Luxus has recently secured £1.29m in EU funding from the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The funding is to support the development of infra-red reflecting (IRR) colourant technology to enable the effective sorting of both black and coloured plastics that were previously unrecyclable.

As these plastics contain carbon pigments that absorb infra-red light, they cannot be optically sorted with the near infra-red (NIR) detection technology used by recycling depots.

This commercialisation project, known as NIRSort, aims to develop a range of IRR colourants that will be tested in numerous applications for the first time, including automotive plastics components and consumer durables such as home appliances.

The aim is that it will enable more manufacturers to take greater responsibility for the products they produce by ensuring that they can be automatically sorted at end of life to provide high-quality plastics waste.

Black plastics waste alone represents about 30% of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and vehicle polymer waste streams. Around two million tonnes is currently unrecyclable because it cannot be sorted effectively.

A lack of vision

Technical innovations such as these novel IRR colourants will tackle new plastics waste streams, helping recyclers to gain a greater share of this high-value market and producers to be more responsible.

But innovation alone is not enough. If we are to effectively deal with the fallout from China’s ban, we need a combined industry- and government-led approach that includes ‘demand-pull’ measures and investment in infrastructure to really help open up new markets.

A failure to see the opportunities in our recycling and waste supply chain has held the sector back for too many years. We therefore urge the government to act now to help support the supply chain to deliver the high-quality plastics that will help secure our future.

Malcolm Odlin is purchasing manager at plastic recycling company Luxus

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