Britain is frantic now that China won't take plastic waste

trash can
CC BY 2.0 Kevin Krejci

For 20 years, China has essentially been the UK's plastic dump. Now that door is closed and nobody knows what to do.

China doesn't want the world's garbage anymore. For the past twenty years, it has imported enormous quantities of waste plastic from countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. But last year, it announced it would no longer do so. The ban on imported plastics went into effect on January 1, 2018. The Guardian reported:

"Last summer the Chinese government announced it intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of the year, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) drinks bottles, other plastic bottles and containers, and all mixed paper, in a campaign against yang laji or 'foreign garbage'."

This change has come as a huge blow to the UK, in particular, which used to ship two-thirds of its waste plastic to China. Since 2012 the UK has sent more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic to China.

Recoup, a UK-based charity working to promote recycling levels in the UK, blames the government for not taking action when it should have. An article in the Guardian says there were indications in 2008 and 2012 that the Chinese market may eventually be restricted, but the UK never did anything about it. Indeed, it's acting as if it were blindsided by the announcement. Environment minister Michael Gove admits he doesn't "know what impact it will have" and hasn't "given it sufficient thought."

Now, the ban has taken effect and city councils are scrambling to figure out what to do. Already the trash is piling up. Simon Ellin of the UK Recycling Association told the Guardian:

"You can already see the impact if you walk round some of our members’ yards. Plastic is building up and if you were to go around those yards in a couple of months’ time the situation would be even worse."

Apparently some recyclers stopped shipping their plastic to China in the early fall, for fear it wouldn't arrive before the deadline.

Officials are talking about needing to build more incinerators, but these are not a sustainable solution. Louise Edge of Greenpeace told BBC:

"Incineration is the wrong answer - it's a high-carbon non-renewable form of generating electricity. It also creates toxic chemicals and heavy metals. If you build incinerators it creates a market for the next 20 years for single-use plastics, which is the very thing we need to be reducing right now."

Nor are landfills logical. Plastic waste piles up, does not shrink, occupies valuable space, and leaches toxic chemicals.

The UK government is right to feel frantic at this moment, but this enormous change could also be viewed as a great opportunity to turn things around, to take a drastically new approach to dealing with recyclables. Some ideas:

-- The UK could insist on a much more lucrative bottle return system, where customers are rewarded generously for returning containers for reuse and companies are rewarded for using reusables.

-- It could introduce a sliding scale tax on plastic packaging based on how easy or difficult an item is to recycle. (This is a suggestion from the Commons Environmental Audit Committee.)

-- It should encourage shopping with reusable containers by opening zero-waste bulk food stores across in every city, much like Bulk Market is doing in London right now.

-- It could be the daring first nation to ban all single-use plastics outright. Imagine that!

Rather than panicking and chasing short-term solutions, Britain should think deeply about what kind of circular economy, unsullied environment, and clean cities it wants to be known for. At the very least, Michael Gove has one thing straight; he told BBC that the UK must "stop off-shoring its dirt." The China solution was convenient while it lasted, but now it's time to face the consequences of our convenience addiction.

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