Plastic Problems – Suspicions of a Recycling Crisis

I don’t pretend to be an expert in waste management, but I have spotted a few things about China’s new restrictions on the imports of recyclable materials that don’t seem to ring true…

(15/01/2018)

For many years, the UK has depended heavily on China when it comes to waste disposal, exporting a massive half a million tonnes of used plastic there each year. The result has been mutually beneficial, with this essential removal of the UK’s waste also providing a valuable raw material for China’s booming and profitable recycling industry. Much more importantly, this arrangement, and similar ones between China and other developed countries, has had huge environmental benefits.

That’s chiefly because plastic is a very difficult material to dispose of. Incinerating it generates not only a lot of greenhouse gases, but heavy metals and other toxic chemicals as well. The problem with landfill is that plastic is non-biodegradable. Vast quantities of it – estimates put the figure as high as 12.7 million tonnes – end up in the oceans each year. Campaigners have even suggested recognising the result, a floating mass of mostly plastic waste the size of France in the Pacific Ocean, as an independent country to raise awareness.

Of course, transport of waste plastic to China is not without an environmental footprint of its own. For the reasons I’ve just outlined, though, the benefits of such arrangements are broadly considered to vastly outweigh the downsides.

In China, however, the new year has brought major new restrictions on the imports of recyclable materials from overseas. Here in the UK, the effective result is a massive reduction in the quantities of waste plastic that can be exported. A decades-old arrangement has come to an abrupt end.

Yet it’s hard to see why the Chinese government made such a change so suddenly.

Given that up to now, China has been the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials, these new restrictions constitute a significant change in how waste is managed on a global scale. So it’s quite surprising that the new legislation was only announced in July 2017. That gave the governments of major waste-exporting countries less than half a year to prepare; time which was further eaten into by the fact that the 1st January deadline applied to the actual arrival of waste in China, which is in many cases the end of a very long and time-consuming journey.

I find myself not knowing what to make of the ethics of China’s decision. On the one hand, the sudden drastic change will almost certainly mean more plastic going for incineration or landfill – very bad news for the environment. On the other, China’s contribution to recycling up to now has been outstanding, and of course the country has never been morally responsible for dealing with its neighbours’ waste. One could argue that China is simply exercising its unquestionable right to change its trading strategy on its own terms, while others may query whether the use of China as an “easy option” by waste-exporting countries like the UK was ever morally sound in the first place.

Yet the restrictions don’t seem to make perfect economic sense either. While the USA have so far led the way in raising concerns about the risks posed to jobs overseas, the fact that there are almost 1,800 licensed recycling factories in China strongly suggests that significant economic problems will be felt there too. Earlier this month, the BBC News at Six featured an interview with the baffled manager of one such factory, who was struggling to see how he would be able to import enough raw material to keep his business running – and he surely can’t be alone in worrying about having to lay off staff or even shut down his entire operation in the months to come.

Of course, we must not forget the official reason for the restrictions – contaminants within the recyclable materials. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection told the World Trade Organisation that they had “found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously”. It must therefore be conceded that there was a serious problem that needed to be solved.

Yet even so, the “solution” seems somewhat drastic. Statistics strongly suggest that problems arose because existing rules weren’t followed, not because of problems with the rules themselves. Widespread inspection of recycling plants in China at the beginning of July 2017 found that well over half were violating already existing legislation. Note the timescale here – the restrictions were announced mere days after these inspections took place.

A similar situation seems to exist at the exporting end of the arrangement. To quote the BBC: “Western recyclers admit that… the rules have too often been ignored and rarely enforced.”

Also, some may call me paranoid, but for me, the Chinese government’s summary that they are banning “foreign garbage” has a disturbingly populist ring to it.

In short, the overall impression I get is of a Chinese government that has taken unnecessarily drastic action well before more moderate possibilities – such as stricter enforcement of existing legislation – have been properly thought through.

It also strikes me that public awareness of the issue here in the UK does not yet reflect the enormity of the situation.

China’s new restrictions undoubtedly represent a significant setback to plastic recycling globally. Yet here in the UK, the problem could be even more severe. With no clear alternative arrangement in place, it’s arguably not so much a question of how plastic can be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner, but an issue of whether it can be disposed of at all.

Backlogs of waste are already accumulating at recycling plants. Spokespeople admit that the industry “doesn’t know how to cope”. The chief executive of the UK Recycling Association even predicts that “it could be chaos”. It does not seem an exaggeration, therefore, to say that a waste management crisis is rapidly brewing. Yet media coverage of the issue seems to have been relatively limited.

More worryingly, the government don’t seem very focused on this situation either.

Although the Conservatives haven’t had a great deal of time to prepare, I would have expected them to have used the last six months to at least come up with some emergency measures. Yet while they haven’t been silent on the issue of plastic recycling, their rhetoric has so far translated into woefully little meaningful action.

Theresa May’s recently announced environmental plan was summed up by the BBC’s political editor as: “ideas that will take place over 25 years with no legal guarantees”. The Prime Minister’s vague response, that “this is an inspiring plan”, serves only to re-affirm my initial conclusion that her government lacks the conviction necessary to deliver actual legislative change.

The environment secretary, Michael Gove, has been little better. Although he discussed some ideas for tackling plastic waste in December, he was completely stumped by questions over the China situation and forced to admit that he had been “slow to spot the problem coming” and “I have not given it sufficient thought.”

Ideas around a return scheme for plastic bottles and a 25p tax on disposable coffee cups are also being widely discussed. Yet here again, we see a lot of discussion going on, with no guarantees of significant action to solve the huge problem that China’s new restrictions pose.

As to the reason why the government’s efforts have been so unimpressive, I suspect a significant part of the blame lies with our usual adversary: Brexit.

Since listening to a speech by a professional political analyst some months ago, I’ve been aware of a powerful anti-Brexit argument many Remainers miss; that Brexit is not only chronically unethical and significantly harmful to the economy, but it also constitutes an enormous waste of Britain’s political resources.

Theresa May has dedicated vast amounts of her attention to the impossible task of carving out a Brexit deal anywhere near as beneficial as EU membership. She’s also had to try (and fail) to address a record-breaking winter crisis in the NHS. The BBC has reported widely on this but, seemingly afraid of the backlash from Brexiteers who don’t like to be told inconvenient truths, has largely neglected to mention the role that the 96% post-referendum fall in the number of EU citizens registering as nurses has played in the NHS’s worst ever nursing shortage. Without Brexit, the Prime Minister would have had ample time to translate her environmental pipe-dreams into legislative reality.

Similarly, one can only imagine how much time Michael Gove would have had to give “sufficient thought” to the China situation if he were not such a dedicated Brexiteer. And the weeks of commons debating time needed for the EU withdrawal bill could have been far better spent voting through urgent new legislation to cut plastic waste and improve recycling infrastructure.

Yet on the latter point, Brexit once more rubs salt into the wound. Improved recycling infrastructure will surely involve a lot more menial work such as hand-sorting of waste. That’s precisely the kind of low-paid, unskilled and thoroughly unpleasant job the vast majority of UK-born workers won’t touch. Under normal circumstances, EU immigrants would fill the gap. It’s a shame, therefore, that Brexit Britain’s right-wing government is so hell-bent on making it difficult for them to do so.

In short, what began as a firmly non-European issue has, for me, demonstrated that the influence of Brexit reaches further than most imagine – and never with favourable consequences.

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