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26 March 2018

​Simon Ellin considers the impact of the Chinese restrictions on importing recovered paper and plastics under National Sword.

It’s almost four months since China enforced its 0.5% contamination restrictions for paper – and blacklisted all but post-manufacturing recovered plastics. Contrary to expectations, we’re not overrun with stockpiled materials. Perhaps because the industry doesn’t see things getting better any time soon.

Make no mistake, we are mid crisis. Minister for the Environment Therese Coffey’s assertions that emerging markets would pick up the slack haven’t been borne out. But then we never thought they would be. For plastics, data for January shows the amount of material falling off a cliff, 20,000 tonnes less than the same month last year. The highest tonnage was exported to Malaysia, but even that figure fell by comparison to 2017.

On the plus side, there has been a marked increase in news of home-grown reprocessing opportunities, such as DS Smith’s announcement that it could reprocess as many as 2.5 billion take away coffee cups a year at its Kemsley plant.

Of course, low material prices make such opportunities look attractive. But we need to find ways to ensure they remain attractive in what is always likely to be a volatile market.

Another casualty of the China ban has been prices. With trays at £-50 and mixed papers at £0, we have to question the sustainability of some collections. There is little doubt that continued low prices will result in model changes. Are waste management companies prepared (or able) to shoulder the market risk, and if so, for how long?

Or could it be that some services are taken back in house? Given the state of local authority finances, one has to wonder if that is actually possible.

Either way, we need to look for new solutions, one of which could be a move back to dual stream.

What is apparent is that this situation is not going to change any time soon. The door to China is open, but only just, and only for selected, high quality materials. All of our information is indicating that absolutely every bale of material received in China is being inspected. And if anything untoward is found – down to the smallest element – it is rejected.

Knowing this, the UK Government has an opportunity like never before with its Resource & Waste Plan. If it covers funding, design, infrastructure, material selection, and clarity of communication, it could underpin a far more sustainable future.

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