News, Culture & Society

Plastic crisis as China says it won’t take our recycling

Britain could be left with mountains of used plastic and cardboard after China announced it will no longer recycle our waste.

The decision was described as a ‘massive shock’ for the recycling industry. More than half of Britain’s plastic recycling – 55 per cent – gets sent to China and Hong Kong.

Much of it is low-quality plastics and paper such as margarine tubs, yogurt pots, plastic film and dirty pizza boxes but from next year China will take only the purest supplies – effectively ruling out household items. Alternative countries will be sought to deal with the waste, but it could end up being stockpiled before being buried or burnt.

More than half of Britain’s plastic recycling is sent to China and Hong Kong, pictured  

If China goes through with its plan, Britain faces a crisis about what to do with its waste 

If China goes through with its plan, Britain faces a crisis about what to do with its waste 

There is also the risk that illegal dumping will intensify – at a time of unprecedented concern over the harm caused by plastic pollution around the world.

The Daily Mail has led calls for a stop to plastic poisoning the Earth – with campaigns for a tax on plastic bags, a ban on unrecyclable coffee cups and calls for a deposit scheme on plastic bottles.

Simon Ellin, head of the Recycling Association, said of China’s ban: ‘It’s a massive shock for the recycling industry. We’ve been given six months to change 20 years of recycling practice.’

He said high-quality waste – such as plastic bottles – was not the problem. ‘The problem is the lower end of the market, your pots, tubs and trays, your margarine tubs and low-quality plastic film, food wrappings,’ said Mr Ellin. ‘These are the things China has traditionally always taken.’

Environment Agency chairman Emma Howard Boyd says the ban could lead to waste ‘being stockpiled or disposed of illegally’.

Chinese recycling Q&A 

How much plastic do we export to China?

Around 400,000 tons a year – half of which is domestic recycling.

Why do we send recycling to China?

China has accepted lower quality recycling than many other countries, and has huge demand for raw materials. Sending plastic to China lets us meet higher recycling targets and reduces landfill in the UK. At the same time we have not had to improve the quality of our recycling in the UK.

What happens to it?

It is meant to be recycled and turned into new plastic – but critics say conditions in the Chinese recycling industry can be shocking. A 2014 documentary highlighted poor conditions and child labour at a plant in Shandong province. Scenes showed workers sorting plastic by burning it with cigarette lighters and sniffing the fumes.

What will we do if we can’t export it?

Temporary storage of plastic underground is one possible solution, as is incineration. Waste companies are urgently seeking new markets and recyclers are hoping to find new plants to process plastic in the UK.

A report by environmental group Greenpeace estimates that Britain has sent 2.7million tons of plastic scrap to China for reprocessing since 2012.

Elena Polisano, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: ‘Instead of confronting our growing problem with throwaway plastic at home, we have been shipping it off to places like China where it’s easier for us to ignore.

‘Now that China has decided they’ve had enough of our waste, it’s obvious that the UK’s recycling system simply can’t cope with the mountain of plastic waste we generate.

‘We urgently need investment in recycling infrastructure and a serious plan to prevent plastic production from continuing to grow. That means developing sustainable alternatives to single-use, disposable plastic products.’

The Treasury is already examining a tax on ‘single-use’ items such as plastic food trays.

As the Daily Mail reported earlier this week, recycling rates in England are stagnating, with just 44.9 per cent of household waste recycled. It is now thought highly unlikely a tough target to recycle 50 per cent by 2020 will be met.

Mary Creagh, chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: ‘This ban could mean a double whammy for taxpayers if the price of our exported waste falls and the cost of UK disposal rises.

‘The government should invest in more reprocessing facilities to reuse these valuable materials, create green jobs and prevent plastic and paper pollution.’

A Defra spokesman said: ‘We are looking at ways to process more of our recycling at home as part of our resources and waste strategy.’

Michael Gove brands tree-felling councils as vandals

Michael Gove has accused councils behind the needless felling of thousands of trees of ‘environmental vandalism’.

The Environment Secretary said that Britain’s forests were ‘pathetically small’ compared with most of Europe, covering just 12 per cent of the country, and signalled he wants to reverse years of loss of tree cover by planting new woods. 

He suggested that not only were local authorities failing to plant enough new trees, some were responsible for destroying many of the ones they have.

Environment secretary Michael Gove, left, has accused councils who have been chopping down trees, such as Labour-run Sheffield, of being 'vandals' 

Environment secretary Michael Gove, left, has accused councils who have been chopping down trees, such as Labour-run Sheffield, of being ‘vandals’ 

He said: ‘We have had individual local authorities and other organisations that, as well as not planting with sufficient forethought, have also been responsible for felling in a way which is an act of ecological and environmental vandalism.’

His comments, at a private meeting in Parliament yesterday, come as council chiefs in Sheffield appear set to ignore public fury and chop down 41 First World War memorial trees, despite local protests. 

In summer, Mr Gove wrote to the head of the Labour-run council suggesting that felling the trees would destroy ‘our children’s rightful inheritance’.