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UK wakes up to reality of China's waste ban

By ANGUS MCNEICE | China Daily | Updated: 2018-02-05 09:39

Nation experiences 'short-term pain' as companies scramble to set up recycling operations for paper, plastics

On an industrial estate next to Heathrow Airport, workers sort through disposable cups and glasses of all shapes and sizes-among them coffee cups discarded in street bins by Londoners on their way to work and pint-size containers left on beer-stained stadium floors by soccer fans.

The cups are sorted by type and tightly packed into bails that will soon be turned to pulp at a reprocessing plant.

In time, that pulp will be used to make new goods-pencils, rulers, notebooks and even picnic tables.

In recent years, much of this waste would have been exported to China, but China's decision to stop importing other countries' waste has shaken the United Kingdom out of its complacency and forced it to address its failures to reduce waste and recycle it.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the UK Recycling Association, said China's ban on paper and plastic waste imports, effective Jan 1, could breathe new life into the United Kingdom's recycling industry.

The ban has led to a stockpile of such waste in the UK and other European nations as they search for alternate export markets and new ways to process the materials domestically.

"What we are experiencing is short-term pain for long-term gain," Ellin told China Daily. "I think there's a massive opportunity now for the UK."

The nation is a net exporter of some reclaimed materials, including mixed paper, cardboard and plastic. In 2016, the UK collected over 1 million metric tons of waste plastic for reprocessing, but only a third was recycled domestically, according to the UK's Environment Agency.

It also exported slightly more than half the 5 million tons of cardboard and paper collected in the country. Environmental organization Greenpeace estimates that between 2012 and 2017 Britain sent 2.7 million tons of scrap plastic to China.

Ellin said the UK does not have enough plastic and paper processing plants to deal with the amount of waste the country produces.

"We've got the opportunity now for the UK government to give us the tools we need to invest in internal UK infrastructure," Ellin said. "But it's got to be government-led and there has to be a whole supply-chain approach, where everyone takes responsibility-from the designers, manufacturers and retailers through to local councils and processors."

Coffee cups a pain

The Simply Cups recycling project, a partnership between environmental company Closed Loop UK and waste management enterprise Simply Waste Solutions, is the first in Britain to add value to the disposable cup.

Coffee cups are the scourge of the waste industry in the UK. They are difficult and expensive to recycle because they require a specialized facility to separate the plastic lining from the paper outer section of the cup. Before the establishment of such a place five years ago, almost all of the 2.5 billion coffee cups that Britons discard each year were either buried or burned.

By bringing together stakeholders and orchestrating a system in which cups are collected, pulped, and made into new products, Simply Cups has ensured that 1 percent of those discarded cups are now recycled. It is a drop in the ocean, but a start, said Peter Goodwin, director of Closed Loop UK.

Closed Loop initiated a similar operation that helped take plastic bottle recycling rates in the UK from 3 percent in 2001 to almost 50 percent today.

According to Goodwin, these operations are what Britain urgently needs, especially now that China has stopped accepting foreign trash.

"What the Chinese announcement has highlighted is the real capacity gap that we have in the UK," Goodwin said.

Cheaper recycling options abroad have led to the closure of hundreds of paper recycling mills in the UK since the 1970s.

One of Closed Loop's plastic recycling centers had to shut down four years ago, when low oil prices made new plastic a cheaper option for manufacturers, and Britain exported record levels of scrap plastic to China as a result.

'Majority' put in landfills

"Stuff is only recycled in the UK where there are systems in place that create value," Goodwin said. "The waste that doesn't have a system-which is the majority-is put into landfills, incinerated, or exported."

Plastic waste is a hot topic in the UK. The issue of global plastic pollution reached a wide audience through the BBC documentary Blue Planet II. And media reports on the China ban let Britons know just how much of their waste went from their homes to other countries. A quarter of the scrap plastic sent from the UK to China originated in households.

Ellin of the UK Recycling Association said the government had been "asleep at the wheel" before the debate in the media and among the public.

China began phasing in waste restrictions four years ago, before stopping most plastic and paper last July. Ellin wrote a letter to the government in September calling for urgent action in light of the ban.

In November, UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove was criticized when he told the Environmental Audit Committee he had "not given sufficient thought" to China's looming ban. Two months later, Gove handed out reusable coffee cups to members of the British cabinet.

"I recognize that China's decision will cause some issues in the short term for recycling in the UK," Gove said in Parliament. "We will continue to work closely with industry, the Environment Agency, local authorities and all interested parties to manage those issues."

This month, UK Prime Minister Theresa May delivered her first major speech on the environment, saying the government will target the nation's "throwaway culture" and eliminate single-use plastics by 2042.

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