Chinese ban on waste imports is significantly affecting UK councils’ ability to collect and recycle plastic
Major problems in the plastic recycling industry are costing local councils in England up to £500,000 extra a year, as they struggle to deal with the continuing fallout from import bans imposed by countries who are no longer able to take the UK’s waste.
A survey by the Local Government Association (LGA) revealed nearly half of councils who responded (52) say China’s ban is having a significant impact on their ability to collect and recycle plastic, due to rising costs. Fourteen councils across the country say their recycling costs have increased by an average of half a million pounds a year, in part because of rising processing charges per tonne.
“It’s clear that the ban by China on imported waste, which could soon be implemented by other countries, could have a marked impact on councils’ ability to recycle,” said Martin Tett, environment spokesman for the LGA. “It is essential that the government provide support to help councils offset the loss of income they face as a result of the ban. Councils want manufacturers to play their part to reduce the amount of material entering the environment which can’t be recycled.”
Two-thirds of UK plastic packaging waste is exported, and the export industry was worth more than £50m in 2017.
The Guardian reported earlier this week that international markets are beginning to close their doors on the UK’s packaging waste as allegations of corruption and fraud in the export industry are investigated. The allegations include claims that exporters are falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste that might not exist and that UK plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans.
Data analysed by the Guardian shows export firms have claimed to have shipped abroad 35,135 tonnes more plastic than HMRC has recorded leaving the country, raising fears they are exporting rogue shipments to claim payments.
More than 5% of the 114 exporters licensed by the Environment Agency to export plastic packaging waste have had their accreditation suspended or cancelled as part of the investigation.
Most local authorities collect plastic bottles, but some councils are on the brink of ending plastic collections amid fears the plastic will end up polluting the oceans when exported.
Swindon council will decide in December whether to end its plastic collections for recycling altogether over concerns about the capacity in the UK to process low-grade plastic, allegations of abuses within the export system in the UK and the risk of plastic leakage into the ocean in recipient countries.
The local authority believes it will have more control over its plastic waste by collecting it with mainstream rubbish and drying it out at its own waste-to-fuel plant, which provides energy for the concrete industry in France. Swindon is one of the few councils to own a waste-to-fuel plant.
Councillor Maureen Penny, Swindon council’s cabinet member for highways and the environment, said: “At present there is no market in the UK for the low-grade plastics that we collect at the kerbside and, while we know our plastics are dealt with properly up to a point, there is always a risk it may ultimately not be recycled or disposed of in the right manner further down the chain.”
Penny said if the UK recycling system improved in the coming years, the council could review its decision to end plastic collections.
Following the China ban in January, international markets for UK plastic waste are also restricting imports: Malaysia and Vietnam have imposed temporary bans and Poland is considering restrictions after fires at illegal waste dumps.
Growing markets are emerging in Turkey and the Netherlands, where there are also allegations of abuse within the system and doubts about whether the plastic is being left to leak into the oceans.
Under the UK packaging waste system councils foot the vast majority of the bill for recycling waste, according to research by the National Audit Office.
Local authorities spend an estimated £700m annually on collecting and treating packaging waste, but the businesses producing the packaging contributed just £73m last year to reprocessing and recycling it – or €13 per tonne recycled.
This compares with countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, where retailers and producers are made to fully fund the cost of household recycling collections.