business politics waste

A crisis and an opportunity in Britain’s recycling industry

There’s a crisis moment on its way in the recycling industry in Britain. At the end of this year, just ten days away, China will stop accepting imports of plastic waste. The country has imported millions of tons of waste plastic from Britain alone over the last decade. It’s the main destination for the plastic that you put in your recycling bin. But China doesn’t want any more of it – it’s not good enough quality, not sorted properly and not washed.

You can’t blame China for putting an end to the practice, but it really throws a spanner in the works for our already faltering recycling rates. We need to find somewhere else to dump our plastic, stop recycling, or very quickly develop some new solutions.

I favour option three, and I think we should take this as an opportunity to rethink the way we recycle.

One thing we can do is move quicker and finally deal with plastic bottles. If we can’t ship them to China any more and we don’t have our own recycling capacity, they’ll be stacking up in landfill before we know it. So let’s throw the problem back to the industry with a deposit scheme, as Scotland is already planning, and encourage companies to take back plastic bottles and recycle them themselves.

It’s good to see councils leading by example in phasing out single-use plastics. I’m looking forward to the Refill app going national, and anything that we can do to reduce the problem in the first place is going to be worth doing. Action on plastics is politically popular at the moment. There’s support from tabloids, and the issue got a high profile mention on the popular BBC nature series Blue Planet II. Like him or not, we also have an environment minister with a track record of getting things done, and Michael Gove has plastic waste on his agenda. We have a fairly unusual moment for change. Now could be the time to bring in national recycling standards, and ban certain types of single-use plastics.

This new development also creates a host of new business opportunities in the circular economy. We’re going to need to sort and reuse more plastic in Britain, rather than shipping it overseas. It’s going to be a buyer’s market for plastic recyclate, ready for processing and potentially manufacturing. Let’s think creatively about how we can take advantage of this moment – could councils support local industries to recycle plastic locally, creating jobs and supporting young entrepreneurs? Are there cities or regions that are well set up to expand capacity, and bring in recycling from other areas? There are employment opportunities and money to be made in moments like these.

Incidentally, Wales may be that region. The country’s Zero Waste strategy encourages councils to reuse resources and “ensure that this closed loop recycling takes place in Wales” where possible. They already have the best recycling rates in Britain, are ahead on their national targets, and may be well placed to help the rest of us deal with our waste problem.

I’ll be watching this space over the next few weeks and months. And if I read in a year’s time that we’ve just doubled our exports of recycling to India instead, that really would be a waste.


  1. You start your piece by saying our plastic waste is not good enough quality, not sorted properly and not washed. This needs exploring. How exactly is it not good enough quality? If it isn’t sorted properly, is that caused by householders (in which case they may need more information) or does it get mixed up post-collection? Not washed; my Council doesn’t say we must wash it (though I usually do) so do I assume the Council bulk-washes it somehow? So who needs to change what they do and how can we make that change happen? After all, if UK businesses start to process our plastic waste they will no doubt have the same issues.

    1. Indeed.I didn’t go into that because it gets complicated, but its mainly to do with introducing national standards as I understand it. Because it’s been left to local councils to do what they like, we produce a variety of grades of recycling. Some places sort and clean and produce quality waste plastic ready to be recycled. In other places the contents of recycling bins gets less processing and is sold on cheaper as mixed plastics. That’s the stuff that arrives in China, where they find that its contaminated and useless, and it ends up in landfill there instead of here. China doesn’t want to be treated as a bin any more, and rightly so.

      I think the task is to bring in national minimum standards for sorting and processing, so that we can guarantee a reusable recyclate. There may be some household education to do in some areas, while others are getting it right already. Same goes for processing. Some councils have fairly sophisticated systems and contracts in place, and others don’t. The work to be done will vary around the country.

      There’s nothing to lose here. Raising the quality of the recyclate we produce will raise its value, and we can go from seeing it as rubbish to be disposed of to a resource for industry.

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