The United Kingdom is not doing enough to respond to the Chinese ban
on plastic waste imports, said British recyclers, and this could lead to
more plastic polluting the world’s oceans.
In January China stopped accepting certain types of plastic waste
imports on environmental grounds. Heads of recycling companies in
Britain are concerned that the UK is now redirecting exports to other
countries in Asia that do not have the capacity to receive or process
New UK export data shows that while waste plastic exports to China
have fallen by 98.3 percent, since the China-banned plastic exports to
Malaysia have doubled. Exports to Vietnam have increased by half and
Thailand has received British plastic for the first time in years.
This week Vietnam announced it is halting plastic waste imports until
October as its shipping terminals have reached overcapacity.
Keith Freegard, director of Salford-based plastic recycler Axion
Polymers, said the UK should be “concerned about waste treatment
infrastructure” in the countries upon which it is now relying more
heavily to deal with its waste material.
“What is happening to the fraction that is not being properly
recycled?” Freegard said. “Is that going straight into the oceans? If it
is, we’ve got a dreadful system.”
Jessica Baker, director at British recycler Chase Plastics, said that
while the government is taking steps to regulate plastic usage, it has
not done enough to invest in infrastructure that would allow the UK to
deal with more of its own waste. In February the government said it
aimed to eliminate single-use plastics in the UK by 2042.
“Banning straws and other single-use plastic when the oceans are
filling with our exported plastic is like fiddling while Rome burns,”
Baker said. “It will do very little to change the problem of plastics in
From January to April this year, UK exports of plastics to Asian
countries outside of China increased by 31.8 percent on the same period
Malaysia now receives more British plastic waste than any other Asian
nation, with exports doubling to 30,318 metric tons during the period.
Exports to Vietnam climbed to 14,576 tons, an increase of 49 percent.
Thailand has accepted 2,105 tons of British plastic so far this year,
having received no shipments in the previous two years.
Plastic exports from the UK to China from January to April this year
totaled 1,390 tons, down from 84,012 tons during the same period last
Speaking from a recycling conference in the United States in early
May, Steve Wong, president of the China Scrap Plastic Association, said
that the majority of plastic recycling companies in China have either
shut down or switched to dealing with domestic supply.
Wong estimates that 20 percent of companies have moved their
operations to other nations in Asia. While relocating Chinese firms have
augmented the recycling infrastructure in some of these countries, Wong
said they are still likely to struggle to deal with the influx of
plastic scrap from around the world.
He also said that future policy changes could put the industry at
risk, if governments crack down on waste imports as China did, due to
adverse environmental conditions.