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China Plastic Import Ban

5th February 2018

On 1st January 2018 China stopped importing 24 kinds of solid waste including plastic bottles and containers and mixed papers, saying that much of it is too hazardous to recycle. This is a wakeup call for the UK, which has traditionally exported the lion’s share of its plastic exports to China and Hong Kong. Some of the resulting UK surplus will go to other Asian countries, but it is currently unclear where the remainder will go, and stockpiles are already beginning to appear at UK recycling sites.

The ban will also have global ramifications as, according to IndustryWeek, China accounted for 51% of global plastic scrap imports last year. This is likely to lead to reduction in the supply of plastic PRNs, at least in the short term, and therefore push up 2018 PRN prices. Recent reports suggest that the UK may begin exporting to different countries instead. In addition, it could shift about 2% of global polyethylene plastics supply from recycled to new material, according to a Morgan Stanley report.

This is a rapidly changing story. At the end of January, Let’s Recycle outlined a recent Sky Atlantic documentary which called for a change to the PRN system allowing exports, and potentially recyclable materials ending up in landfill. The latest update is that resources minister Thérèse Coffey has denied that this is a crisis. “China is perfectly entitled to introduce this ban …. Places like Turkey and others are taking more. What the markets are showing is that others are taking this waste.” We will be watching the development of this story and the impact it has both on the PRN market and single plastic usage.

Meanwhile, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove has told the BBC that he wants to reduce plastic use in the UK, and to make it simpler for people to recycle. He says he would like to cut the total amount of plastic in circulation, reduce the number of different plastics in use, improve the rate of recycling and make it easier for individuals to know what goes into the recycling bin and what goes into general rubbish. This follows from November’s budget when Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said he would work with Michael Gove to investigate how the tax system and charges on single use plastics could reduce waste, for example for takeaway coffee cups. 2018 could be the year which sees a change in the landscape of plastic usage and disposal around the world.