The UK, China, and Recycling Plastic

13 March 2019

For decades, the Western world and the UK, in particular, was keeping on top of its recycling problem by exporting approx. two-thirds of its plastic packaging to China. However, since China called a ban on importing “foreign garbage”, local councils are reporting recycling costs increasing by over £500,000 over the last 12 months.

This, in turn, has resulted councils calling upon businesses to fund recycling costs and invest in efforts to cut packaging. This made PAL Hire ask the question:

Why are we so bad at recycling?

To understand why we are so bad at recycling, we must first understand the impact China had on the plastic waste industry. Since 1992, China has imported 106 million metric tons of plastic waste, or 45 percent of all plastic waste.

Abruptly, this all stopped as a result of China’s new policy on foreign plastics, but it seems as though no one had prepared for this to stop. Countries, corporations, and councils all expected China to continue importing recycled plastic with no preparation for the future.

We have not prepared for the future and now it is coming back to haunt us. When using the term “we”, I do not mean consumers. Consumers have zero control over the packaging accommodating the products they purchase. Those who do have control are the sellers of aforementioned products – businesses.

How has the UK reacted to China’s ban?

Not in the way you would expect it to react. From everything said so far, you would expect the UK government, or local councils, to bring in a team of experts that can provide fresh, innovative ideas, and place, in legislation, requirements on businesses designed to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used in products.

Since we’re unable to export to China, the UK has been trying to ease the pain from China’s ban by exporting waste to other Asian markets, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. These countries are already planning to ban the importing of plastic waste within the next few years.

The China ban should have been a wake-up call for businesses to design better, long-lasting products. In a world where corporate and social responsibility is seen a top priority, a company’s image can have a massive impact on its revenue streams.

It’s not only in the beginning of the recycling process where businesses are falling behind or not taking the fair share of responsibility, depending on your point of view, but also in the actual recycle of their own products. In 2017, local authorities spent approx. £700m on recycling compared to only c£70m from business.

What are businesses doing?

Slowly, but surely, companies are taking responsibility for their products, from conception to disposal. They are taking back used packaging, reusing and recycling it where possible, and have begun disposing of it in a responsible manner.

Some businesses have taken the first step in coming together and combating the plastic crisis. The UK Plastics Pact is a programme to tackle the issue of plastic waste, with its members predominantly operating within the food and drinks sector.

The Pact has set the following targets:

  • Eliminate unnecessary single-use packaging through redesign and innovation.
  • All plastic packaging must be reusable or recyclable.
  • 70% of plastics packaging recycled or composted.
  • 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging.

The members are currently responsible for 80% of plastic packaging sold in UK supermarkets and, if targets are met, this would have a significant impact on the UK’s plastic waste industry. The aim of the UK Plastics Pact is to inspire action by other sectors to limit or eradicate the need to export plastic waste.

Click here to find out more about the UK Plastics Pact.

EU Targets, Brexit, and the Future

The EU Waste Framework Directive has set a legal requirement for the UK to recycle at least 50 per cent of its household waste by 2020. Even though Brexit will have taken its course by then, the UK government has still pledged to try to meet this target.

As a result of China’s ban and the ineffectiveness of exporting plastic waste to other South East Asian countries, local councils are struggling with the collection of plastic waste.

Innovation is the way forward and in Swindon, the local authorities are trialling the conversion of plastic into fuel. Converting plastics to fuels like petrol, kerosene, and diesel closes the loop in the plastic lifecycle and, if taken up on a grand scale, could reduce plastics going to landfill by up to 80%.

As the UK has already agreed to the EU’s recycling targets of 55% by 2025 and 60% by 2030, innovation is the only way the UK can recover from the import bans in other parts of the world. Current targets will not be met without innovation, but we are slowly making progress. Maybe, we’re finally learning from the mistakes of the past.