China announced in July that from January 2018, it would no longer be accepting imports of 24 grades of solid waste because high levels of contamination were polluting the country’s environment. Furthermore, from March 2018, other imported materials with contamination levels above 0.5 per cent will also be banned. This is a slight relaxation of the 0.3 per cent originally announced, but it remains an extremely challenging goal. The acceptable level was previously set at 1.5 per cent.
The short notice given by China about this change in policy has been criticised as unreasonable by countries that export large quantities of waste. The EU, the USA, Canada, Australia and Korea have all called for a transition period of up to five years to prevent the collapse of the recycling industry.
Exporting recyclable waste to China has historically been extremely cost effective: firstly, because lower quality materials have been accepted; secondly, because there is a ready supply of cheap labour; and thirdly, because materials are shipped on the return journey by vessels carrying goods from China to Europe, which would otherwise be empty on their journey back to Asia. In the case of paper, a lot of this is used to make cardboard boxes for the goods that are subsequently shipped to Europe. This combination of factors has made it more cost effective to export waste to China than to process it in the UK.
The trade in waste plastic has helped fuel China’s manufacturing boom, but also contributed to the increase in UK local authorities accepting plastic for recycling in the early 2000s. However, many UK-based processing companies were driven out of business because of the Chinese market. As a result, there is now very little domestic capacity for recycling.
So, what does this mean for us?
Scotland is taking a strong stance on this, looking at alternatives to exporting our home-grown waste. A return to glass bottle schemes is being considered, along with investment in reprocessing facilities. Beyond this and other measures being considered, there is a need to go to the root of the problem and reduce our use of plastic.
We are at a watershed moment for the UK’s approach to waste. Many have acknowledged that China is quite right to take a firm stance on ‘foreign garbage’. For too long, the UK and other rich nations have allowed the booming Chinese market to mask the real issues around resource use, as well as turning a blind eye to the dumping of low-grade waste. We must start to see our waste as our responsibility, whether that is at a consumer level, a commercial level or in government.
For more information on Aberdeenshire’s approach to recycling visit http://www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/waste/
To find out more about the impact plastics are having on our marine environment go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDDFUZRyoIs