The global waste industry has been thrown into turmoil as China halted its import on almost all categories of plastic and poor-quality cardboard and paper.
The ban on imports of millions of tons of plastic waste – which came into effect in January 2018 – is already causing a build-up of rubbish at UK recycling plants and those operating in what is a commodity market face chaos and financial stress in the short-term.
In addition, the UK Government has launched a wave of initiatives designed to cut down on single use plastics, which is in turn putting added pressure on the recycling industry.1
This change in waste removal could have serious impacts on the UK. Below are a few recent statistics on recycling and rubbish removal.
- The UK recycling rate for waste from households was 45.2% in 2016, increasing from 44.6% in 2015. But there is a EU target for the UK to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020.2
- The recycling rate for waste from households increased in all UK countries in 2016. The recycling rate for England was 44.9%, compared with 43.0% in Northern Ireland, 42.8% in Scotland and 57.3% in Wales.3
- UK biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill in 2016 was similar to that in 2015, remaining at approximately 7.7 million tons or 22% of the 1995 baseline value.4
- In 2016, 71.4% of UK packaging waste was either recycled or recovered compared to 64.7% in 2015. This exceeds the EU target to recycle or recover at least 60% of packaging waste.5
The figures on one hand look positive, but they fail to take into account one of the most seismic changes to affect the industry to date: China. In July 2017, China's government told the World Trade Organization that it intended to halt the import of 24 grades of plastic, textiles and paper; which it said were often contaminated with dirty or hazardous material. Plastics, including PVC and polyethylene, are also covered by the ban, as well as mixed batches of paper and cardboard.
The UK, which has little capacity to recycle plastic, has been trying to locate newer markets for recycling since China announced its possible ban in 2017. In the absence of alternatives, businesses face turmoil in the short-term, creating a huge strain on financial resources with cash flow being badly hit in many cases.
This has come at a bad time for the sector, which has reported tight margins for a number of years, compounded by cuts in central government funds to local authority environmental services budgets and a global fall in commodity prices on recycled materials.
Waste management and re-processing businesses are facing a triple whammy. The speed at which their core market evaporated, combined with global competition for new markets and the costs of having to store and sort waste, which is increasing on a daily basis. Local recycling units are now facing the very real issue of increasing costs as they strive to sift and sort in the UK before shipping to new markets, which with the closure of the Chinese market, are already swamped.
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