For many years China has been the largest global importer of many types of recyclable materials, last year importing 7.3m metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan.
However, in July 2017, China announced big changes in the quality control placed on imported materials, notifying the World Trade Organisation that it will ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of the year. The impact of this will be far-reaching.
China is the dominant market for recycled plastic. There are concerns that much of the waste that China currently imports, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go. So what will happen to the plastic these countries collect through household recycling systems once the Chinese refuse to accept it? Alternatives include:
– Plastics collected for recycling could go to energy recovery (incineration). They are, after all, a fossil-fuel based material and burn extremely well – so on a positive note, they could generate electricity and improve energy self-sufficiency.
– They could also go to landfill (not ideal). Alternatively, materials could be stored until new markets are found. This also brings problems, however – there have been hundreds of fires at sites where recyclable materials are stored.
The current situation offers us an opportunity to find new solutions to our waste problem, increase the proportion of recycled plastic in our own manufactured products, improve the quality of recovered materials and to use recycled material in new ways.