Revisiting the waste management industry in the UK a year and a half after China, their largest waste importer, shut its door permanently. Professionals and experts explain the necessary of waste trade, the reason behind the ban, latest news and future of waste management in the UK.

Almost 18 months ago, China’s ban on importing waste posed challenges to the UK waste management industry because China was the biggest waste export market for the UK with over 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste sent to China since 2012.

After that, the UK continues exported less waste in total, but more waste to other countries individually, such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Poland, which raises the question: why can’t UK recycle and process their waste domestically?

Why is it necessary to export waste to other countries?

For one, the UK doesn’t have enough recycling infrastructure to process waste. The report from Resource Magazine says that UK’s recycling infrastructure is not likely to fulfil the 2035 recycling target which is to achieve recycling rate of 65%.

Source: Greenpeace Southeast Asia

Dr Adam Read is External Affairs Director of SUEZ, a British waste management company operating from more than 300 locations throughout the UK and serving over 12 million people by disposing of 9 million tonnes of waste through a system of recycling, composting, energy-from-waste and landfills. Dr Read says: “It’s the government’s decision that they don’t want to fund UK infrastructure for waste processing. We trade globally. So, the UK is increasingly over the last fifteen years using more and more overseas markets to take the waste material that we’ve been collecting year on year.”

Simon Ellin, the CEO of The Recycling Association that represents more than 80 UK recycling organisations producing more than 2 million tonnes of recyclate a year, says: “We are sixty-five percent net export of plastic packaging, and we are about eighty percent net export of all plastic.

“It’s only a year and a half later after China’s ban, and government hasn’t poured huge amount of money into waste recycling infrastructure yet.”

Because of the economic globalisation trend, recyclable waste is actually a commodity that is in demand from the receiving country.

Dr Read says “Most of the packaging and products that the UK and America buy aren’t produced in their country. We are buying TVs that are packaged in Southeast Asia, phones that are packaged in China. So, a lot of our packaging has an origin elsewhere in the world.

“We live in a global economy. Since we don’t produce this stuff anymore, why not send to the market in demand. Moreover, the cost of labour and land in the UK are higher than in Turkey, Indonesia or Malaysia. So, the cost of us doing that reprocessing in the UK is much higher than it would be elsewhere.

“Why would we create our own infrastructure in the UK where it’s going to cost you ten times, if not more, to practice in the UK? ”

Dr Read also mentions that if the UK reprocesses their waste, the cost of doing so would be much higher, then A. the consumer will eventually pay for it, B. we still need to send reprocessed material back into global economy because we don’t use it here and we don’t manufacture.

Ellin believes that waste trade is also a process of returned logistics. He says: “When containers arrive in the UK, containing goods with packages, we then fill the container with recyclable waste  and send back to where it came from, otherwise they would sail back empty. It’s all about reverse logistics.”

Overall,in the nature of a globalising market, the much higher cost of labour and land in developed countries and the lack of support and funding from the government justifies the existence of exporting waste business.

Although there are arguments that suggest waste trade has contributed to plastic waste in the ocean, Ellin strongly denies these statements.

He says: “Plastic waste in the ocean isn’t caused by exporting waste, but by the poor waste management practices within certain countries. It’s misinformation that we are exporting container filled with plastic and dump it in the ocean. Plastic waste in the ocean is largely related to developing countries.”

Also, he thinks this is an opportunity for economic development and jobs for importing countries, to help support the local closed-loop economy. And there are lots of ways that governments and business can get involved in those countries to help develop the right solutions.

Read says: “From our perspective, what we need to do is make sure that we’re sending the material we promise to send them, and we’re not sending them low grade or poor or contaminated waste, or just black bag rubbish.”

Source: Greenpeace Southeast Asia

To explain what waste is exported and what isn’t, we need to look back at how UK management companies manage waste.

There are two types of plastic waste: low grade plastic and recyclable plastic (actually all plastic is technically recyclable – will be explained later).

For plastic waste made in the shape of a bottle, they can be recycled. This includes soft drink bottles, shampoos, bleaches, milk containers etc. Other plastic waste such as plastic bags, plastic lunchboxes, plastic pots and tubes are all defined as low grade waste, which will not be sent for recycling because low grade waste isn’t fit for the current recycling method, but instead mechanical recycling, a method by which waste materials are recycled into “new” raw materials without changing the basic structure of the material.

Read says: “Low grade waste means that materials aren’t in demand by the plastics market. That is because it has already been recycled a few times, so the polymers that make up the plastic would have been used a few times and it can be easily pulled apart even for a fine plastic bag.

“Besides the quality issue, plastic bags are also hard to recycle because it tends to stick to the conveyer belt or other recycling materials, which makes it hard to separate. They will also be wrapped around different parts of the conveyer or equipment, and they tend to rip easily when they are in the vehicle during the transport.

“Same reason applies to other low grade waste as well. For example, contaminated plastic waste means it’s mixed with other waste, like food that may cause malfunction of the sorting machine.”

So, as for low grade plastic waste and contaminated plastics, they are more likely to be sent to energy plant to create energy.

Dr Richard Beaven, the Principal Research Fellow within Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Southampton, specialising in landfill related research, says that landfill doesn’t tend to get bales of plastic waste. It occasionally happens when plastic come to a landfill within the municipal waste stream, mixing with the rest of rubbish.

Dr Beaven says: “Generally, a lot of councils don’t aim to separate out plastic bags which tend to be thrown into the landfill bin, mixed with all other components aren’t easily recyclable.

“The problems of the landfill, which is the emissions of leachate and gas, are caused by materials in sites that aren’t stable. Because plastic doesn’t degrade and doesn’t release pollution and doesn’t release gas. Plastic by itself in a landfill isn’t actually causing environmental problems.

“Landfill is a facility for storing materials over geological periods of time. Plastic gets buried in the landfill wouldn’t harm the environment, but just stay there. If you burn plastic, greenhouse gases would be emitted.”

The counter-argument for dumping waste in landfill is a pure waste of resources because more plastic bags are made by using quite a lot of energy, which makes burying plastics in landfill neither economical nor practical. Dr Beaven acknowledges that it’s a two-edged sword, and currently, a chemical process to recycle those low grade plastic waste could make both sides happy, which has been developed by SUEZ.

So, why not utilise the new technology?

Read says: “Low grade waste could be turned into biodiesel or bioethanol and plastic products such as plastic bags, through chemical recycling process.

“However, compared with mechanical recycling, chemical recycling is expensive, and there hasn’t been a strong demand for the chemicals back into the chemical sector. If there is a growing demand in chemical sector for the chemical products produced by chemical recycling, it could be a push for a faster chemical recycling development.

“But now, we don’t have the push from the chemical sector, and the pull would be too expensive. And because of the low landfill capacity in the UK, I don’t think sending plastic waste to landfill is a practical idea. In SUEZ, we stick to mechanical recycling which is what has mentioned above with streamline and machine, or just burn those low grade or contaminated plastics.”

Ellin says that chemical recycling is several years away from the development, a lot of it is more like theory at the moment. Trying to do it on a commercial scale is a long way off. He presumes that this technology needs at least five more years to develop, and it’s expensive.

Why did China’s ban imported waste since China is still the biggest product factory in the world, and it needs materials to produce products?

“For one, they were fed up with so much low grade plastic waste, mixed rubbish coming in because not all the companies operate to the same high standard,” Read says, “That waste wouldn’t go anywhere but to the landfill which pollutes environment.

“Two, middle income category in China is growing exponentially, and they start to produce homegrown plastic bottles. So instead of taking in exported packaging, they’re now starting to consume a lot more packaging in china. So, they got access to that same material on their doorstep, rather than importing it all the way around the world. So, they started to close the loop more locally and focus on a local material first.”

Zhai Hongzhong, a Chinese officer of ShenZhen Customs, doesn’t fully agree with Read’s opinions and says: “China’s ban on waste importing is because of the increasing cost of waste processing. In the past when we still imported waste, we buried simply all unrecyclable rubbish or contaminated waste in the landfill with basically, zero financial cost.

“Now because of the rise of environmental awareness, more policies are introduced to reduce environmental pollution. As a result, when small waste management companies process waste, they cannot just bury it, instead, waste needs to be sorted and proceed in the plant first.

“Nowadays, one ton of waste need to cost approximately ¥600 (£70). They don’t want to process foreign waste anymore because the cost increased, and the profit shrank drastically.”

Zhai also acknowledged that although China itself produces more waste than ever, it’s still not enough for the Chinese factories, and China still needs to import raw materials to the factories to produce products. So, the 100% ban on imported waste is to avoid rubbish coming in with recyclable materials.

China’s ban has been a game-changer to the global waste trade market. Not only because it puts governments from both exporting countries and other importing countries to the test, but also puts more spotlight on the operation standard behind those waste management companies.

Not every waste company operates at a high standard. Lots of countries have become the ‘landfill’ receiving unrecyclable and overwhelmed waste over the last year.

UNEARTHED’s data shows that in the first four months after China’s ban, the UK exported 33,453 fewer tonnes of plastic waste, compared to the same period of 2017, a drop of 17%. Ellin says that some recyclers are taking more waste than they usually would, while some low grade and contaminated waste are buried in landfill.

Countries and districts such as Poland, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Turkey, have seen a dramatic increase in imported waste, which resulted in some countries being overwhelmed with plastic and paper scrap and may lead to restrictions in other countries. For example, Vietnam announced a four-month ban on imported waste, and Malaysia is set to send back 3,000 metric tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste to original countries, including the US, the UK and Canada.

Source: Greenpeace Southeast Asia

A National Audit Office’s report in 2018 suggested that there are concerns about overseas recycling standards and the government relies on exporting materials to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure this material is actually recycled, and without consideration of whether other countries will continue to accept it in the long-term. As a result, low grade and contaminated plastics and rubbish are exported under the pretext of recycling.

China barely sent rubbish and low grade waste back before the ban. In terms of the reason, Zhai says: “In China, only big nationalised companies could make deals with exporting countries. Then the imported waste would be sold to smaller companies to process.

“So, the big companies that made the deals and communicates with sellers were more like intermediate agents, and the smaller companies that processed the waste wasn’t in that table, and they couldn’t bargain with those big shots.”

However, countries involved in the waste trade market seems to take more actions in 2019. In May, 180 countries agreed to a plastic agreement except the US, which aims to restrict exporting low grade and contaminated waste and rubbish to importing countries unless exporting countries have gained consent from importing countries. Before that, exporting countries could sell those rubbish to private entities in developing countries without consent of local authority.

Ellin says: “Undoubtedly, poor-quality waste export has happened in the past, and it’s still occurring to a degree. But I will always argue that most of the materials the leaves the UK, are compliant and inspected. Countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Poland and India, are looking at plastics that arrive with more scrutiny, and they are buying less. So, the problem is getting better.

“It’s about better regulation. When you look at Malaysia, they have shut down about 61 illegal waste facilities, and taking less waste. When you have those facilities audited and shut down illegal, unlicensed facilities, exporting high-quality recyclable waste wouldn’t be the last straw on their waste management system.”

The UK government also has taken actions across the board to weed out the illegal operator sending low-quality garbage. In June, one of the largest waste management companies in the UK—Biffa Waste—had been convicted of exporting contaminated waste to China. One month later, UK authority was set to launch a formal investigation after contaminated clinical waste was exported to Sri Lanka and found, including suspected human remains. In February, 35 MPs signed an Early Day Motion to express their concern over exported plastic waste, the motion pointed out the fact that there is the lack of adequate waste management systems, and millions of tonnes of plastic sent abroad for recycling may be being dumped in landfill. Those MPs called for a complete ban on the export of the UK’s plastic waste to developing countries is impossible.

In response of MPs’ motion, Ellin says: “We have been lobbying the government and other agencies and said that was just stupid. We cannot develop UK processing capacity overnight.

“If we don’t have the processing capacity, then we can’t do it. That is ok for MPs to say ban export. The only alternatives at the moment, we either burn it or bury it. Environmentally, it’s not a good solution.”

In May, the UK waste industry wrote to the government, offering £10bn to invest in recycling infrastructure, to reach the recycling target. But they warned that the government must put forward policies by investing funding as well.

“The policies’ funding from the government would be essential if we want to recycle our waste at home. SUEZ would be happy to do that,” Read says, “While the global waste market is still there, the best things for us to do is to send recyclable waste and work with our partners on the other side of the world. It could be investing money to build waste facilities to increase their waste capacity, which SUEZ has already done it.”

The Government has recently undertaken consultations in relation to increasing the amount of waste we recycle.

Gillian Charters, head of Waste Management at Sheffield City Council, says the consultations included:

  1. A Deposit Return Scheme
  2. The requirement for each local authority to collect the same materials for recycling including all plastics and a separate weekly collection for food waste.
  3. A tax on plastic goods made from less than 30% recycled content.
  4. How to reform our packing legislation so that more funding flows back to support recycle.

Charters says: “We are awaiting the development of the consultations into policy proposals before we further develop our strategy for Sheffield.”

Among those methods, Deposit Return Scheme has been a nationwide success in Norway where they have recycled up to 97% of plastic bottles. The Norwegian government tax on companies for every produced bottle, and the more bottles they recycle, the less tax. Consumers would pay a deposit on every bottle for 10p to 25p depending on size, then get it back when they return the empty bottle into machines which would read the barcode and produce a coupon for deposit.

Scotland has begun to look at the Deposit Return Scheme with no detail of exact policy so far.

However, Ellin isn’t strong with the Deposit Return Scheme since from his perspective, plastic drink bottles are easy to recycle.

“If we have a proper collection system, proper labelling, proper education, then you wouldn’t need a very expensive return scheme. I see very little point in UK government investing in this scheme that only recycles plastic drink bottles when there are more urgent needs in recycling other plastics.”

What is the future for the UK?

Although the UK government hasn’t built more processors or facilities or plants in the UK for the past 18 months, they have gotten the policies—Resources and Waste Strategy—in place which means that could happen within the next five years. After India has banned importing plastic waste this March, suggesting that some importing countries may follow China’s step in posing waste restriction temporary or permanently, the UK needs to improve its waste infrastructure capability to save for a rainy day.

Ellin says in the Resources and Waste Strategy, there are measures to improve the recycling of plastics. For example, the producers that are making the plastics, the brand owners, the supermarket, are going to be made to pay on the percentage of the cost of material. There will be penalties for bad design so that the polluter pays principal, and the more recyclable it’s, the less they pay. That money would be invested into local authorities, to council, to provide proper collection facilities.

In terms of waste trade, Read believes that international commodity trading will continue for a long time to come, because there will be other markets that get developed, like Poland and Southeast Asia.

Read says: “We will invest in other markets, and it will take some time to develop new stable ones. Companies like ours will invest in a lot. There will be opportunities that people want to develop like China did, like Poland and countries in Southeast Asia. The UK was glad for the extra capacity over the last fifty years that will happen somewhere else.

“What we’ve got to ensure is that we’re not sending non-recyclables, wrong recyclables or poor-quality recyclables to those countries because that’s just moving pollution. I’m not supporting that at all, but I do think international global commodity trading is conceptually fine if we can control quality.”

Ellin also believes that new technology could be the solution to exporting waste management problems.

“Not all materials are inspected and it depends on the country that is going to. Not all the materials have to be pre-inspected before it arrives there, which though it’s the issue in itself. The environment agency in the UK, they do try to inspect as much as they can by using market intelligence. But the reality is the agency don’t have the resource to inspect everything,” Ellin says.

“Developing new technology like a waste tracking system or block trace system could help us know the materials before it moves and track through its journey, from the collection bins to the harbour port, to destination port, to end-users.

“By using technology, we know the material they want has arrived and it’s suitable for recycling. We can’t inspect every single load, and we need technology to do it for us.”

The story of exporting and recycling plastic waste would still continue, and the waste industries and importing countries also need governments from wealthy countries to take part in solving plastic problems.