UK Plastic Waste Crisis is Looming
The UK is facing a recycling crisis, now that China has refused to accept certain types of British plastic waste.
Previously, around 25% of all plastic waste from the UK was sent to China, along with 55% of all paper destined for landfill. Around 500,000 tonnes of plastic was shipped to China each year, but the country has called a halt on the trade, leaving waste companies and local councils with huge difficulties.
Plastic Waste: The China Problem
Many industry leaders have called on the government to take action, before the crisis spreads. The problem arises because material that was previously recyclable at a minimal cost, now has now nowhere to go except Energy Recovery such as RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel), or in the worst case, it will be sent to incinerators or landfill.
It has been reported this morning that a number of local councils may refuse to recycle any plastic material, because of the cost incurred.
Officials have warned that tonnes of toxic plastic could end up being incinerated across the UK where available or shipped to Europe which has more capacity, because recycling locally could prove too cost intensive. However, even when chemicals are captured by incinerator plants, there is still some risk to human health. Incinerating plastic risks emitting pollutants such as hydrogen chloride, dioxin and fine particulate matter, if not processed properly, which is far less than ideal.
After China: What’s Next For Plastic?
Louise Edge, from Greenpeace, told the BBC:
“Incineration is the wrong answer – it’s a high-carbon non-renewable form of generating electricity. It also creates toxic chemicals and heavy metals.”
“If you build incinerators it creates a market for the next 20 years for single-use plastics, which is the very thing we need to be reducing right now.”
Barry Donaghy, Director at ISL Waste Management said:
“This development is game-changing for our industry and the government needs to respond quickly, with an effective plan. There was not enough of a lead-in time and we did not have long enough to prepare for this situation.”
“Plastic being sent to China has been affected over the last 6 months as the country prepared to close it doors. Containers going to China take 8-12 weeks to ship so affected material did not ship during quarter four of 2017, leaving waste companies with a build-up.”
“To make matters worse, it is not only plastic that is being affected. Fibre is also being restricted (namely mixed grades of paper and cardboard) as China has banned some types of material and reduced the level of contamination within others to a level in some cases that the material cannot be shipped at all.”
“The tide of public opinion is building against single use packaging. We need to invest in making packaging and plastics recyclable, reusable and environmentally friendly. A good example of this is the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic used for milk cartons, a high grade material which is always in demand. Almost 80% (90,000 tonnes) of HDPE containers are recycled each year.
“As a ‘zero waste to landfill’ business, we strongly advocate against sending increased amounts of plastic to landfill sites. Since they do not degrade and shrink like other products, plastics consume a disproportionate amount of space. Also, approximately 80% of litter in our oceans comes from land and increased levels going to landfill, would likely mean more ending up in our rivers and seas.”
“We need to close the loop on plastic and we need government assistance to do it.”