China bans plastic waste imports

China bans plastic waste imports

A Chinese ban on the import of plastic waste poses major challenges for the UK’s recycling industry, which ships more scrap to China and Hong Kong than any other destination. British companies have shipped more than 2.7m tonnes of plastic scrap to China and Hong Kong since 2012 – nearly two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports, an Unearthed analysis of customs data reveals.


But China has announced it will stop imports of “foreign garbage” from early next year, saying it found imported recycling material was contaminated with “large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes”. The rules appear to include tough quality standards for industrial plastic scrap, and a total ban on plastics from household recycling.


Recycling industry sources told Unearthed the ban threatens to tip Britain’s already stretched recycling sector into crisis, as a chronic shortage of capacity to recycle plastics in the UK collides with the near-total closure of the world’s biggest market for waste household plastics.



Councils may be forced to stop collecting some kinds of plastic for recycling, and the situation could endanger the UK’s ability to meet its recycling targets. Waste companies are pursuing new export destinations for plastics, but are also considering temporarily burying plastic waste, incineration, landfill, and even converting it into jet fuel.


But environment secretary Michael Gove told MPs last month: “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.”


Elena Polisano, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “Instead of confronting our growing problem with throwaway plastic at home, we have been shipping it off to places like China where it’s easier for us to ignore. Now that China has decided they’ve had enough of our waste, it’s obvious that the UK’s recycling system simply can’t cope with the mountain of plastic waste we generate. It’s time to stop kicking the plastic bottle down the road and finally get to grip with the problem at source.


“We urgently need two things to happen – investment in recycling infrastructure to ease the pressure, and a serious plan to prevent plastic production from continuing to grow. That means developing sustainable alternatives to single-use, disposable plastic products, and the way to encourage innovation in this area is to hand full responsibility for the products to the companies designing them. That means companies like Coca Cola not just making, filling and selling their bottles, but collecting, storing and recycling them afterwards. We’re confident that once they’re in control of the full life-cycle of their products, they’ll accept that they’re using the wrong material and switch to better, and cheaper, alternatives.”


The full Unearthed report, with data on export volumes and responses from industry, politicians and environmental experts, is available here

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