Why South East Asia's import restrictions could present a golden opportunity for the UK

Written by: Mark Venables | Published:
Image credit: Stuart Kinlough/ Alamy Stock Photo

When China banned the importation of 24 types of waste, mainly plastic and paper, the consensus was that other regions would step up and fill the void.

That hope has been dashed after Thailand joined Vietnam, Indonesia and Poland and have added their own import restrictions along with hints of potential new regulations.

The material that the UK and the rest of the EU, America and Australia export to Asia is largely material that is not economically viable to recycle domestically.

Sometimes this is because we do not have the required facilities, or the material is such low quality, because of non-target material contamination, that the cost of processing and disposal is too high.

According to Richard McKinlay, head of circular economy at recycler Axion, the alternative to exporting these materials is to burn them or to invest in more recycling infrastructure. In the short term, it is likely that with more countries placing restrictions on poor-quality imports, so the level of incineration will increase.

Export policy

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with exporting quality materials, such as sorted HDPE and PET bottles, where contamination is less than 5%. This material is of value and recyclers in South East Asia can recover value, converting the packaging into a secondary raw material to feed the demand for recyclate that still exists in China.

However, McKinlay draws the line there. “Exporting low-grade mixed plastics with high levels of contamination to countries where waste management and disposal infrastructure is not well developed or controlled is frankly disgraceful,” he says.

“There is limited value in this material, and much of it will have to be disposed of, potentially leaking into the environment and the ocean. If we are truly concerned about the effect plastic has on the environment, we will stop wasting time talking about banning straws and do something about the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic we export annually.”

The term ‘waste’ is not something that Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin is comfortable with, but he concedes that South East Asia has allowed the UK to grow its recycling industry and, without it, we wouldn’t have a success story.

“Export markets offer competition in the marketplace that keeps prices relatively high, and in the case of China is a great example of a circular economy where we are sending back recyclables on the vessels they arrived in which would otherwise be empty,” he says. “We should very much look to protect the export market.”

Market opportunities

Although potentially a headache for the industry, it could also present a window of opportunity, the biggest of which is the prospect of recovering more polypropylene (PP) packaging, rather than exporting it in the mixed plastics. This is a valuable polymer and there are companies in the UK that will recycle this material.

There is also the opportunity to develop a design for recycling, to ensure products carry residual value at the end of life to make it worthwhile recycling them in the UK. Aside from this, processing will be challenging to develop, mostly on an economic level.

Jakob Rindegren, ESA recycling policy advisor, explains that several things are needed for that to happen, including more certainty of what the regulatory landscape will look like in the UK and what the longer-term restrictions are in the importing markets.

“We fully respect the right of importing countries to restrict materials, but rather than outright bans, our preference is for stricter quality standards and robust inspections,” he says.

According to Adina Renee Adler, senior director of government relations and international affairs at ISRI, there are several opportunities to come out of the current situation, and increasing recycling in the UK and the United States is certainly one of them.

“Initiatives include educating the public on what is and what is not recyclable, enhancing kerbside collection programmes, upgrading sorting and processing technology, promoting the use of recycled materials in new manufacturing – to name a few,” she explains.

Challenges ahead

It appears that the biggest challenge is first acknowledging the issue that not all packaging is recyclable and, secondly, that recycling packaging waste is expensive and relying on the market to solve the problem alone is unrealistic.

The main barrier to more domestic recycling is the economics. Recycling packaging is expensive and virgin polymer is cheap. McKinlay believes what is needed is a funding mechanism, such as extended producer responsibility, to drive the wheel of packaging recycling. “Without this, we will forever be limited to recycling PET bottles, HDPE bottles, and some PP rigids,” he says.

If we really want to create a circular market and produce enough commodities to meet minimum recycled contents, we must have a fully functioning recycling industry which starts at the design stage and exists right through the value lifecycle.

According to Ellin, it also requires supply chain responsibility and partnership with the introduction of consistency in collections through local authority investment and investment in processing infrastructure.

Helen Jordan, sustainability issues executive at the British Plastics Federation (BPF), is calling for a reform of the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system, which currently encourages exports rather than the reprocessing of material in the UK. “The BPF Recycling Group has for many years promoted the idea of a split plastic packaging target, with an increasing amount of companies’ evidence needing to come from UK reprocessors,” she adds. “This then provides certainty in the market and allows for investment in UK facilities.

“Having consistent collection schemes across the UK for both kerbside collection and ‘on the go’ recycling bins would also assist, as this would improve the quality of the material being collected and simplify things for the consumer.”

Forward thinking

Despite its tarnished reputation, McKinlay says we cannot lose sight of the fact that plastic is an amazing material that reduces our impact on the environment in so many ways. “What we must not do is make ill-considered and misinformed knee-jerk reactions,” he says.

“We need to understand that there are problems along the whole chain, from design to collection, sorting, recycling and end markets. Developments are required across the entire supply chain, and they must be done collaboratively. This is being done with initiatives such as the Plastics Pact, but developments take time.”

In the short term, it is likely that the UK will continue to export materials or incinerate them and recover some energy. What we must develop together is a roadmap to tackle the problem, but understand that we must only move in a direction that positively impacts the environment on a lifecycle basis. This may mean using some packaging that is not recyclable or using virgin polymers in packaging and recycled polymers in long-life applications.

Wearing his rose-tinted spectacles, Ellin is expecting a radical approach to resource efficiency in the upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy. He calls it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our industry.

“I think we will see further restrictions in Asia which will force investment in the UK, and if we join up all this we have an amazing opportunity to be part of a world-leading recycling revolution – let’s hope the government doesn’t fudge it.”

In all this discussion it is important to emphasise that this material is not waste. Recyclable materials are valuable commodities that are bought and sold on the open market. The market disruptions we are seeing often have little to do with the trade of recyclable material.

But overall the mood within the industry is that this presents an opportunity or, as Ellin puts it: “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and I’ve never been more excited about the changes we are seeing.”

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