On 1 January 2018 China imposed a ban on the import of certain types of waste including mixed paper and post-consumer plastics (plastics thrown away by consumers). In addition, some other types of waste, including all other paper and plastics exports, will have to meet a reduced acceptable contamination level of 0.5% from March 2018.
China’s decision has a global impact, including in the UK. 3.7 million tonnes of plastic waste are created in the UK in a single year. Of that total, the UK exports 0.8 million tonnes to countries around the world, of which 0.4 million tonnes is sent to China (including Hong Kong). In comparison, other countries including Germany (0.6 million tonnes), Japan and the US (both 1.5 million tonnes) export more plastic to China for reprocessing than the UK. The UK also exports 3.7 million tonnes of paper waste to China (including Hong Kong), out of 9.1 million tonnes of paper waste in total. In comparison, the US exports 12.8 million tonnes of paper waste to China.
Since China announced its intentions on 18 July 2017, Ministers have worked with industry, the Environment Agency, WRAP, the devolved Administrations and representatives from local government to understand the potential impact of the ban and the action that needs to be taken. We have engaged internationally to understand the scale and scope of China’s waste restrictions. The UK Government raised the issue with the EU in September. Alongside four other members, the EU subsequently questioned the proposals at the WTO in October.
Domestically, the Government and the Environment Agency took steps last year to ensure that operators were clear on their duties to handle waste in the light of China’s proposals. The Environment Agency issued fresh guidance to exporters, stating that any waste which does not meet China’s new criteria will be stopped, in the same way as banned waste going to any other country. There is evidence that some operators have already been finding alternative export markets in response to the Chinese restrictions. Data for the third quarter of last year showed increases in exports of plastics to Turkey, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia and increases in exports of paper to Turkey, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Operators must continue to manage waste on their sites in accordance with the permit conditions issued by the Environment Agency. Where export markets or domestic reprocessing are not available, the process chosen to manage waste must be the one that minimises the environmental impact of treatment as fully as possible and follows the waste hierarchy. This requires operators to ensure that where waste cannot be prevented or reused it is recycled where practicable, before considering energy recovery through incineration or the last resort of disposal to landfill.
I recognise that China’s decision will cause some issues in the short term for recycling in the UK. We will continue to work closely with industry, the Environment Agency, local authorities and all interested parties to manage those issues. The Government remain committed to maximising the value we get from our resources, and is already assessing how we handle our waste in the UK in the longer term.
Tackling waste has been a top priority for the Government. In July, I announced in my speech at the World Wildlife Fund our intention to publish a new Resources and Waste Strategy later this year. The Clean Growth Strategy, published on 12 October 2017, set out our ambition for zero avoidable waste by 2050 and announced we are exploring changes to the producer responsibility scheme. In December I chaired an industry roundtable on plastics and outlined my four point plan for tackling plastic waste: cutting the total amount of plastic in circulation; reducing the number of different plastics in use; improving the rate of recycling; supporting comprehensive and frequent rubbish and recycling collections, and making it easier for individuals to know what goes into the recycling bin and what goes into general rubbish.
This builds on action the Government have already taken to reduce waste. Our 5p charge on plastic bags has taken 9 billion bags out of circulation, reducing usage by 83%. On Tuesday 9 January, our world-leading ban on the manufacture of personal care products containing plastic microbeads comes into force. In October 2017 we announced a call for evidence on managing single use drinks containers and our working group will report to Ministers early this year. We are working with HMT on a call for evidence in 2018 seeking views on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single use plastics waste. And under the Waste Infrastructure Delivery Programme the Government will have committed £3 billion by 2042, supporting investment in a range of facilities to keep waste out of landfill and increase recycling levels.
China’s decision underlines the need for progress in all these areas. In particular, we must reduce the amount of waste we produce overall and in particular the amount we export to be dealt with elsewhere. We will set out further steps in the coming weeks and months to achieve these goals, including in our forthcoming 25 Year Environment Plan.