Plastics are piling up in the UK and the rest of Europe as the impact of China’s new restrictions on waste recycling imports continues to reverberate and buyers pick the purest grades of recycled polymer as countries scramble to find new markets, industry players said on 30 January.
New restrictions on waste imports to China imposed by the country’s government at the start of 2018 has throttled shipments to a market that has historically absorbed 66% of the UK’s waste plastics, as well as significant portions of product from Europe and the US.
China's ban on imported plastic waste begins on 1 March
The move constitutes an outright ban on some plastic grades and a heavy restriction on others, according to UK Recycling Association chief Craig Curtis.
There is some scope for the export of industrial offcuts of plastics, but nothing from consumer waste, he added, calling it “potentially the biggest problem the UK recycling industry has ever faced.” The move has taken 7m tonnes of capacity off the market for polymer fibre waste, he added, and the award of waste export licenses is dramatically down so far this year.
UNCERTAINTY ON CHINA
Little clarity is currently available on the volumes of permitted plastic grades that will be accepted in China at present, he added.
There is also uncertainty as to how the current restricted tranche of import licenses, or what the duration of permits will be in future.
So far, only 10% of the licenses expected for 2018 have been issued, and there are expectations that the government will shift from annual license to quarterly licenses in 2019, according to Curtis.
“No one quite knows the import quotas per tonne [at present]. They used to be set on a yearly basis… [at] the end of last year… The tonnages quotas were taken away,” Curtis said, addressing a UK Parliament committee hearing convened to assess the extent of the impact of the measures on the UK’s recycling sector.
The glut of material piling up in western Europe and the US is also allowing buyers from China and elsewhere to be more selective, with interest at present focused on the highest quality recycled plastics, such as unmixed polymers and cleaned granular and flake product. “There is little interest in mixed-grade polymers,” Curtis said.
In the past, low labour costs in China have allowed the employ of workforces to sort unmixed and low-quality plastic and paper waste, but conditions for employees in those industries was part of the reason for the ban.
RAMPING UP RECYCLING
China is also ramping up investment on domestic waste collection and recycling infrastructure, with $21-30bn to be invested between 2016 and 2020 and a focus on capturing plastic fibres streams.
“If China does become self-sufficient, it is not just the UK but a lot of markets around the world [that] are going to be looking at options for what on earth do they do with all the product they are collecting,” said Jacob Hayler of trade group Environmental Services Association (ESA UK), also speaking at the hearing.
The level of stockpiling taking place of material in the absence of a market for it is starting to bite in some parts of the UK, according to Resource Association chief Ray Georgeson.
“There are serious stockpiles, and there is likely to be little short-term alternative other than a landfill option or an incineration option,” he said.
China rose to prominence as a market for waste recycling around 10 years ago, coinciding with a governmental push in the UK to improve recycling infrastructure and waste capture.
The country’s voracious appetite for material allowed UK authorities to meet higher recycling targets without needing to develop markets at home or diversify into other avenues such as waste-to-energy facilities.
Chinese demand kept prices high, and the cost of shipping 20 tonnes of material to China was less than the cost of sending the same quantity from London to Manchester in north England, Curtis said.
Now it will be necessary to find domestic solutions, Hayer said, including government policy that targets environmental outcomes instead of focusing purely on quantity of material recycled, working to create more of a domestic market for recycled material, and exploring other avenues such as using cardboard waste and other biodegradable forms as chemical feedstocks.
“The shock that the Chinese ban presents to our system is dramatic,” said Georgeson.
“We have increased our recycling in the UK almost entirely on the back of Chinese recycling… We have become complacent that that was an easy market for our economy to take advantage of. We lost our way sometime in the last decade.”
The new rules enter fully into force on 1 March, meaning that the current discomfort felt by recyclers and governments may be a precursor to even more difficulty moving into the second quarter of the year. “There is a likelihood that the situation will become more intense in the UK and US around 1 March… We’re really only seeing the start of this,” Georgeson added.