Chinese ban on plastic waste imports – UK business opportunity or a risk of environmental pollution?

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 8 December 2017

The UK has exported 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012 to be processed. But in January, China will stop imports of 24 grades of rubbish and it’s currently unclear what processes are in place in the UK to cope with the change.

The upcoming Chinese ban shows the desperate need in this country to properly embed the principles of a circular economy in the UK and boost the recycling industry

Dr Sue Kinsey,
MCS Senior Pollution Policy Officer

In October, Environment Minister, Therese Coffey, told the Environmental Audit Committee that although it’s a headache this is an “opportunity” for the UK.

“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 the 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,” the minister told MPs.

However, when asked recently about the ban and the impact on the UK, environment secretary, Michael Gove, said: “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is … something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given it sufficient thought.”

Among the waste China will stop importing are polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) drinks bottles, as well as other plastic bottles and containers.

MCS says that Deposit Return Systems (DRS) – there are plans to bring one into force in Scotland and discussions are underway to look at doing the same in England and Wales - could be the answer to at least part of this issue. With more bottles being returned for recycling to increase the reach of the circular economy.

MCS Senior Pollution Policy Officer is Dr Sue Kinsey: “The upcoming Chinese ban shows the desperate need in this country to properly embed the principles of a circular economy in the UK and boost the recycling industry. Sending our rubbish abroad to be processed is unsustainable and a waste of resources. Legislating for a minimum recycled content in plastic items would boost the demand for recycled materials and a DRS could help deliver a clean, uncontaminated product to UK recyclers - something that is not always possible at the moment with plastics collected at kerbside.”

MCS is currently calling on UK governments to put a charge on single-use plastic throwaway items and demanding that big fast food chains stop giving out millions of plastic cups, stirrers, straws and cutlery but instead replace them with reusable or fully compostable alternatives.

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