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The dominant position that China holds in globalmanufacturing means that for many years China has also been the largest globalimporter of many types of recyclable materials. Last year, Chinesemanufacturers imported 7.3 million metric tonnes of waste plastics fromdeveloped countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan.


However, in July China announced big changes in thequality control placed on imported materials, notifying the World TradeOrganisation that it will ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solidwaste by the end of the year. This campaign against yang laji, or “foreign garbage”, applies to plastic,textiles and mixed paper. It will result in China taking a lot less material asit replaces imported materials with recycled material collected in its owndomestic market, from its growing middle-class and Western-influencedconsumers.


The impact of this will be far-reaching. China is thedominant market for recycled plastic. There are concerns that much of the wastethat the country currently imports, especially the lower grade materials, willhave nowhere else to go.


This applies equally to other countries including theEU27, where 87 per cent of the recycled plastic collected was exporteddirectly, or indirectly (via Hong Kong), to China. Japan and the US also relyon China to buy their recycled plastic. Last year, the US exported 1.42 milliontons of scrap plastics, worth an estimated $495m (£373m) to China.


Plastic problems


So what will happen to the plastic these countriescollect through household recycling systems once the Chinese refuse to acceptit? What are the alternatives?


Plastics collected for recycling could go to energyrecovery (incineration). They are, after all, a fossil-fuel based material andburn extremely well – so on a positive note, they could generate electricityand improve energy self-sufficiency.


They could also go to landfill. This is not ideal –imagine the press headlines. Alternatively, materials could be stored until newmarkets are found. This also brings problems, however – there have beenhundreds of fires at sites where recyclable materials are stored.


Time to change our relationship with plastic?


While it is a reliable material, taking many forms fromcling film (surround-wrap) to flexible packaging to rigid materials used inelectronic items, the problems caused by plastic, most notably litter and oceanplastics, are receiving increasing attention.


One way forward might be to limit its functions. Manydisposable items are made from plastic. Some of them are disposable bynecessity for hygiene purposes – for instance, blood bags and other medicalitems – but many others are disposable for convenience.


Looking at the consumer side, there are ways of cuttingback on plastic. Limiting the use of plastic bags through financialdisincentives is one initiative that has shown results and brought aboutchanges in consumer behaviour. In France, some disposable plastic items arebanned and in the Britain, leading pub chain JD Wetherspoon has banneddisposable, one-use plastic drinking straws.


Deposit and return schemes for plastic bottles (anddrink cans) could also incentivise behaviour. Micro-beads, widely used incosmetics as exfoliants, are now a target as the damage they do becomesincreasingly apparent and the UK Government has announced plans to ban theiruse in some products.


This follows similar actions announced by the US andCanada, with several EU nations, South Korea and New Zealand also planning toimplement bans.


Many local authorities collect recycling that is jumbledtogether. But a major side effect of this type of collection is that while itis convenient for the householder, there are high contamination levels whichleads to reduced material quality. This will mean it is either sold for lowerprices into a limited market, will need to be reprocessed through sortingplants, or will be incinerated or put in landfill. But changes to recyclingcollections and reprocessing to improve the quality of materials could beexpensive.


Alternatively, recycled plastic could be used to providechemicals to the petrochemical sector, fuels to the transport and aviationsectors, food packaging and many other applications.


The problems we are now facing are caused by China’sglobal dominance in manufacturing and the way many countries have relied on onemarket to solve their waste and recycling problems. The current situationoffers us an opportunity to find new solutions to our waste problem, increasethe proportion of recycled plastic in our own manufactured products, improvethe quality of recovered materials and to use recycled material in new ways.