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.
- feature image by Arshad Pooloo