For those in the waste management, rubbish clearance and recycling sectors, the changes to China’s waste import policy are having serious knock-on effects.
Interestingly, not being able to send recyclables to China has not really spurred the UK to up its game, but has instead proved beneficial to burgeoning export markets in Vietnam, Taiwan, Turkey, and Malaysia. So, why weren’t we ready to take advantage of the changes? Let’s start from the other side of the world…
What has happened to the Chinese recycling policy?
Back in 2013, China introduced Operation Green Fence to increase the quality of scrap and waste materials that were entering the country, as it was fairly deemed that they had a considerable waste problem. This was a successful campaign for the Chinese, who managed to clean up their act while improving the quality of their industry.
In July 2017, it was announced that on Jan 1st, 2018, new import rules would come into effect, banning 24 more grades of solid waste (plastics, papers, and textile), continuing their mission to lift the environmental standards of incoming shipments. The transition period ends on March 1st, from then any shipment containing more than 0.5% contaminated waste will be refused and turned around. This places a lot of pressure on the UK recycling sector to make changes. The supply chain will also come under great scrutiny to put quality first, or risk losing the Chinese market altogether.
Operation Green Fence forced us to raise quality and lower contamination, as well as reflect on our operations. National Sword, another operation, is cracking down on illegal waste smugglers who try to bypass the new laws and has had billions spent on it.
Another crackdown introduced by the Chinese Government’s Ministry for Environmental Protection looks at 46 of their largest cities and has imposed laws that make the separation of waste at source mandatory. This will increase recycling rates and will be fully enforced by 2020, with 12 of the 46 cities already applying this regulation.
Why is this an important opportunity for UK recyclers?
This latest development is a wake-up call for a sector that has been too slow and reactive in the past, instead of being pragmatic and meticulously prepared. Each time China makes a change, dozens of UK businesses go bust, as the Far East nation accounts for roughly half of the world’s plastic recycling imports, and too many businesses are solely reliant on their partnership.
Over the last few years, the UK has exported roughly 0.5 million tonnes of plastic waste, and 1.5 million tonnes of paper waste to China for reprocessing. To ban certain low qualities of material is to instantly reduce the quantity accepted by a huge amount. We have been exporting plastics to China for recycling for over 20 years; now it’s time to use that experience and put it towards progressive new options.
With a UK market containing more recyclable materials than we have the capability to process, what opportunities do we have?
- Site expansions to increase recycling potential
- Storage expansions to hold more material so that the recycling potential can be maximised whilst expanding
- Opportunity for solutions at local and regional level as opposed to national export solutions
- Businesses can work in collectives to treat and recycle waste, opening the door to a national recycling network that helps recyclers to recycle at full capacity at all times.
What can we do over the next few years to inspire confidence in the UK recycling market?
Time and time again, the recycling industry has called out for more support from the government in helping SMEs to grow, and create a larger coverage and recycling potential in the UK. The Government should look to give out more grants to increase infrastructure now, rather than creating reactive solutions further down the line when the waste problem is more exacerbated.
The Government has introduced several incentives to support waste infrastructure, like anaerobic digestion with feed-in tariffs, renewable heat, renewables obligations and levy exemptions. And, while they’re willing to put a 5p tax on plastic bags, are they willing to contribute towards solving the post-consumer plastic waste issue?
Instead of looking at the Chinese model with frustration or scorn, we can adapt, learn and imitate the best features of their system. China plans to have a fully-functioning Circular Economy, and that means eventually they won’t import any waste at all. To get to this stage, they have to invest now, and that means creating large and numerous recycling facilities that are capable of recycling as many waste types as possible, even if not always profitable. The mindset of the Chinese is to see waste as a positive asset and to use it to become self-reliant. We’d be making a mistake to not even attempt to replicate this.
One way that we can renew and inspire confidence in the UK recycling market is to support local businesses, allow them to grow and develop, synergise, and introduce new solutions. By building new infrastructure from the bottom-up, large waste handlers and waste management companies can benefit from better-developed waste networks, and traders would be able to sell materials more efficiently, reducing road miles, exportation, transport emissions and landfill usage.
What can you do as a business producing waste?
An effective solution for waste-producing or handling businesses who are concerned about where their materials may be going, if China is not an option, is to open dialogues with local recyclers and waste management companies. China tightening their doors will mean that UK businesses are looking for solutions and if they understand what the new market demand is, they may be better prepared to provide solutions.
You may pay a premium to have your waste recycled domestically, mostly due to the fact that rebates in the UK are lower than those paid by China. If your business is concerned about environmental footprint and carbon emissions, domestic recycling really is the best option (as opposed to international shipping containers), and so the potential for anti-emission driven campaigns to encourage domestic recycling could prove effective in inspiring new confidence in the sector.
Beyond the recycling market, Brexit is causing a great deal of volatility. Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to support our local recycling industry and boost the UK economy, rather than selling to China. In a business sense, it may not be the best financial decision made in the short term, but long term, it’s definitely worthwhile.
What else can you do?
Hire a Waste Manager or Compliance Officer if you’re producing a large amount of waste, and really tighten up your procedures. China will accept uncontaminated waste of certain grades, so be sure to separate these materials, educate staff about what they are, and do your best to keep them clean and useful. For all other recyclables, do your best to keep them uncontaminated, dry and separate too, as this makes your waste far more useful and valuable to your local recycling partners.
How has Envirowaste reacted to previous market changes and challenges?
Overcoming obstacles that lay in our path is just a natural part of a business, but we are pleased to say that each time a hurdle needed to be jumped over, we came out stronger and more efficient on the other side. Our services, positioning in the industry, and dedication to excellence and avoiding landfill will help us stand the test of time. It will also encourage our competitors to take a more environmentally considerate approach to rubbish clearance.
What you can do next…
Support a UK recycling business like Enviro Waste, who aim to recycle as much as possible and avoid the use of landfill unless absolutely necessary. Remaining compliant with recycling during this difficult time for the industry can be a challenge for some, but for those who want to make it easy, all you have to do is call one of our dedicated account managers today on 020 3883 6563!