“The current system of comingled collection of recyclables in the US rarely allows for these purity rates — this might trigger either abandoning collection of recyclables, or changing systems to step up the quality and quantity,” he says. “In Europe, the quality and quantity of plastic packaging collection is comparatively better, but an extra effort will be needed. Otherwise, what it will mean is that plastic packaging will not be allowed and only plastic industrial waste will be exported to China.”
Simon added that from a global perspective, China’s import policies are already having an impact on separate collection schemes. He points to the US as an example, where the majority of plastic packaging on the West coast has previously been collected and shipped to China: “There have been many case of municipalities discontinuing the collection of plastic packaging because it is cheaper to landfill it than to recycle it,” he says.
Meanwhile in the UK, China’s bid to clean up its environmental image could “bring about a seismic shift,” according to Libby Peake, senior policy adviser at the Green Alliance.
“The Chinese Government’s previous initiative in this area, the much more gentle-sounding ‘Operation Green Fence’ in 2013, saw the rejection of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of poor-quality recyclate,” she recalls. “This should have been a wakeup call and was a missed opportunity to address some of the problems with our current waste and recycling system.”
Peake says that the UK doesn’t have enough facilities in place to recycle material such as mixed papers and plastics.
“We currently export around two-thirds of our plastic and, following the fall in the price of oil and continued problems with contamination, the number of plastic bottle recyclers in the UK has diminished in recent years. For both bottles and mixed plastics, the domestic infrastructure that does exist struggles to obtain material of high enough quality.”
She added: “The Chinese ban on ‘foreign garbage’ is set to be much more than a short-term headache, and we will inevitably see more material landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled or even fly-tipped with all the risks that entails.”
According to Peake, countries such as the UK and US could soon find themselves at a crossroads — faced with a choice between waste management or resource stewardship.
“We could find another country to accept the low-quality material we can’t recycle here or invest in opening more landfills and building more incinerators,” she says. “But the much better approach would be to address as many quality issues as we can in the short term at the same time as setting in motion a long-term plan for a resource-efficient future — one where waste is minimised in the first instance, products are designed for reuse or remanufacturing, and any material that can’t be minimised is collected consistently so it can be used as a secondary resource here.”