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UK’s recycling industry creaking after China import ban

By Bo Leung in London | | Updated: 2018-01-04 01:18
Workers check a load of imported leather scraps in Xiamen, Fujian province. LIN SHANCHUAN/Xinhua

Recycling experts predict growing chaos in the United Kingdom as materials build up at recycling plants around Britain following China's global ban on importing millions of metric tons of plastic waste.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the UK Recycling Association, a group that represents more than 80 UK recycling organizations, has called for urgent action, saying his members are already seeing lower-grade plastics pile up.

China was the main destination of the world's recyclable plastic but, since Monday, Beijing has banned 24 types of imported waste, including plastic and mixed paper.

The move was part of the Chinese government's campaign against "foreign garbage", which it has described as harmful to the environment and public health.

Ellin said the ramifications of the ban are already apparent in some of his members' yards.

"Plastics are building up," he said. "If you were to go around those yards in a couple of months' time, the situation would be even worse."

A border guard in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, inpects bundles of waste textiles smuggled into China. MAO SIQIAN/Xinhua

Previously, the UK exported almost two-thirds of its total waste to China with UK businesses shipping more than 2.7 million tons of plastic waste to China since 2012, according to data from environmental group Greenpeace.

Ellin said many UK recyclers stopped shipping plastic to the world's second-largest economy in the autumn because of fears it might not arrive before the deadline.

"We have relied on exporting plastic recycling to China for 20 years and now people do not know what is going to happen," he told the Guardian newspaper."A lot of (our members) are now sitting back and seeing what comes out of the woodwork, but people are very worried."

He warned that local authorities' recycling efforts in the UK will bear the brunt of the ban in the short term.

"If it no longer pays for our members to take this waste and sort it once it has been collected by councils, then that might stop," Ellin said. "This might mean that councils no longer collect recycling in the same way. It could be chaos, it really could."

Workers check a load of imported leather scraps in Xiamen, Fujian province. LIN SHANCHUAN/Xinhua

The recycling business will now have to look to alternative destinations, such as Malaysia and Vietnam for their exports.

But some industry experts believe China's decision to shut its doors could be an opportunity for the UK to develop its recycling infrastructure.

Ellin said there is a need to look at the "entire system from producing less, to better, simpler design, to standardized recycling".

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