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Minister plays down fears over China stockpiling

Resources Minister Therese Coffey has played down fears that China’s ban on imported waste could cause chaos with the UK’s recycling of paper and plastic at a meeting of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) today (31 January).

A day after representatives of the waste industry told the EAC that the Chinese ban constituted ‘the biggest problem the UK recycling industry has ever faced’, Coffey asserted she would “challenge the view that its a crisis affecting the industry” and suggested that recycling companies so far seem to be coping with the material they have been unable to ship to China.

The hearing with Coffey was part of an urgent inquiry into the Chinese waste import restrictions and their effect on the UK waste industry. The Chinese Government announced in July that from the beginning of this year 24 grades of waste, including mixed paper and all post-consumer plastics, would no longer be permitted to enter the country for recycling, with restrictions on other materials following in March.

This decision has sent shockwaves across the world, with China importing 28.5 million tonnes of waste paper and almost nine million tonnes of plastics from across the world in 2016. The UK stands to be particularly impacted, as 74 per cent of the nation’s exported waste paper and 55 per cent of its recovered plastics went to China in that same year.

The industry members quizzed on this impact yesterday (30 January) told the committee how the ban was already leading to stockpiled waste that cannot be exported or recycled in the UK due to capacity issues and that the sector was desperate for leadership and policy steer from government.

Many eyebrows were raised in November, when Environment Secretary Michael Gove told the committee that he had not given the matter ‘sufficient thought’, just weeks before the ban came into place. Asked today whether Gove’s gabbled response was indicative that he had not been told about ‘the looming waste crisis’, Coffey could not confirm, but said that Defra had been working on the ban since it was announced in July, and questioned the severity of the ban on UK industry.

Regarding governmental leadership, Coffey said that rather than conduct diplomacy with the Chinese Government themselves, the government considered the EU, as the UK’s spokesperson at the World Trade Organisation, to be the “appropriate forum” to discuss the ban, its implementation and its enforcement.

EAC Chair Mary Creagh questioned why Defra didn’t consider that, with the Prime Minister currently in China and Secretary for International Trade Liam Fox visiting earlier in the month, it was worth briefing them on the ‘billion-dollars-worth of export’ that these materials constituted and raising it with Beijing. However, Coffey stated several times that the “ship has sailed” on direct intervention with China, stating: “China are enforcing the rules, which they are perfectly entitled to do”.

Chris Preston, Head of Waste and Recycling at Defra, meanwhile confirmed that the department had engaged with Chinese authorities on how they planned to enforce the ban, suggesting that the lack of notice had made it very hard for industry to plan for whether their products could meet contamination rates. The Environment Agency (EA) currently has representatives in China meeting with authorities to further clarify the situation.

Stockpiles

Domestically, Preston and Marie Fallon, Director of Regulated Industry at the EA, told the committee that the EA and Defra has been working together for months on clarity, working on permits and with industry to understand where waste is going and working with sites to see if they have sufficient capacity.

With so much waste either being banned outright in China or not meeting new contamination restrictions, Fallon said that the first priority is to understand the risks of sites and ensure they are operating within their permits. “So far we’re not seeing a dramatic request for extra limits for capacity on sites,” she said, “We may see that increase.”

Coffey said that at the moment the industry was showing “sufficient stockpiling capacity”, and Fallon assured the panel that the EA is working with operators to reduce the risks of stockpiling, particularly with fires regarding waste paper.

When asked whether this extra waste being stored could risk an increase in waste crime, Fallon answered that export companies “tend to be more legitimate companies”, but that the EA is carrying out enforcement at ports on an intelligence-led basis, with targeted inspections stopping some exports.

Developing markets

Another issue highlighted by industry members was the need for development of secondary markets and reprocessing capacity in the UK, however much of the discussion with Coffey focused on finding alternative markets for export. “At the end of the day countries like China, Turkey and Vietnam buy this plastic waste products from us because its value has been valuable to them in creating products which they then send back to us,” said Coffey. “That’s the nature of open markets.”

All those on the panel were confident that new markets could be found and when asked whether the UK could suffer from increased export tariffs when it leave the EU, a subject brought into focus by a recent House of Lords report, Coffey said that she was confident the UK would get a good deal.

But the very practice of exporting waste was called into question by MP Robert Goodwill, who suggested that finding new places to send our paper and plastic is akin to “attempting to pour a pint into a half pint glass”. Creagh added that on a recent visit to Bywaters, an East London-based waste firm, the EAC was told that paper that had been selling for £100 per tonne before Christmas was now selling for £20 a tonne. “The market has an oversupply and lack of demand because of the closure of the China market and this could soon feed through into gate fees and council tax bills,” she suggested.

Coffey poured cold water on these fears, responding: “What we are not clear about yet is whether this is a temporary reaction to the glut of material on the market. Is that going to be structural? It’s too early to tell. I expect there will be a price realignment, and that is why we are seeing people holding onto stocks here waiting to see what’s going to happen with the prices.”

On the subject of markets, Preston added: “I think it’s true to say the market has adjusted. This is an open market, there’s an extent to which government can create a framework for how those markets operate. We have done things like improve the quality of information available about improving recycling and the quality of it, but the speed at which the Chinese implemented the changes was much faster, much quicker than anybody including the industry and government expected.”

Relationship with plastic

One way to mitigate the need for export of plastics is to change our relationship with them, said Coffey, and the government is keen to stimulate secondary markets through its Resources and Waste Strategy, which the minister admitted was most likely to arrive in the second half of 2018.

Work is currently being carried out by an industry working group on the rationalisation of plastics, which is attempting the reduce the number of different plastics being used in the mass market for packaging, and thus facilitate the economic recovery of the material.

But the minister was adamant that the government has not ‘dropped the ball’ on domestic reprocessing capacity, and in response to an Ecosurety statement that the UK is ‘nowhere near ready to create the number of recycling plants required’ to treat all plastic domestically said: “We have a variety of infrastructure in this country” adding that differences “depend on whether people are willing to put the investment in. I would accept that the level of capability we would like is not as widespread as we would like.”

Coffey also saw an opportunity in the suggestion that the stockpiling and potential incineration of leftover plastic collected for recycling could hit public confidence in recycling systems at a time that, because of the Blue Planet II series and a number of high profile campaigns, awareness of plastic issues is at its most high.

Rather than present a step back in recycling, Coffey suggested that the two converging issues could be used to emphasise the need for responsible recycling: “There might be a benefit that we are able to say to residents: take even more care so that the quality of recycling gets higher. That’s what helps councils get a better return on materials.”

But she once again said that the government would not be compelling councils to adopt kerbside sort systems to further an improvement in quality. “China was wanting to buy this product from us to fuel their economy of production. I don’t have enough of a sense that co-mingled has changed the dynamics of what would get processed domestically or for export purposes.

“I am conscious that the industry wants as little contamination as possible. The Secretary of State has stated he’s keen to see greater consistency, but as I have articulated before I don’t think I am best placed to say to every single council in the country that they need seven or eight bins, which would be the ideal sorting to maximise every single bit of value.”

European targets

Diverting from the China topic, the EAC took the opportunity to quiz Coffey on the European targets agreed in the Circular Economy Package discussions that concluded just before Christmas. Reports in the national press have suggested that the UK opposed the long-term targets, which have still yet to be finalised by the European Council, backing up previous suggestions that the government was not keen on high weight-based goals.

Picking her words carefully, Coffey said that the government is “straining every sinew” to meet the current target of 50 per cent for 2020, though it is looking unlikely that such levels will be reached in time. Coffey said that she is still not keen on a weight-based measure and that other ways of measuring recycling performance could have better environmental benefits.

She was at pains to point out that the UK is exceeding specific material targets (“The paper target is 60 per cent, we recycle 77 per cent; for plastics it’s 22.5 per cent, we recycle 39 per cent.“)

The Environmental Audit Committee’s hearing on the Chinese waste restrictions can be viewed on the parliamentlive.tv platform.

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