The United Kingdom could be faced with a major problem with respects to recycling cardboard and plastic in the imminent future due to new restrictions imposed by China. While people around the world are celebrating the New Year, some nursing hangovers from excessive celebrations, China is, on January 1, imposing new restrictions on the cardboard it imports. China is also banning imports of waste plastic that is mixed with paper rubbish.
Approximately three million tonnes of cardboard are currently exported from the UK to China every year; China uses the waste cardboard for its many manufacturing ventures. Under current legislation, China accepts cardboard with contamination rates of 1.5 percent, but the new laws restrict this to below 0.5 percent. Loosely speaking, this means that any cardboard that contains staples, or contains traces of plastic or other waste products could be rejected by China and returned to the UK to deal with.
The moves come from China’s president Xi Jinping who is attempting to create a “beautiful china” with a much cleaner environment, which includes campaigning against what Jinping calls yang laji or “foreign garbage.” China is one of the largest importers of recyclable materials in the world with the country importing an estimated 7.3 million tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries such as Japan, the United States of America and the UK.
An expert in recycling, Simon Ellin of the Recycling Association, spoke to The Guardian newspaper and voiced his concerns for the rapidly approaching changes. Ellin admits that these new controls on contamination could results in millions of tonnes of waste cardboard being returned to the UK and has appealed to the Chinese government to delay the new restrictions until exporting countries have had time to fully implement new measures to reduce the number of rejections. “The ban and greater restrictions on imports is being implemented too quickly. As much as we in the UK, US and elsewhere do not have enough time to adapt, this is also the case with the Chinese agencies at the other end. This suggests there could be chaos.”
One of the steps countries exporting plastic, which cannot be contaminated with waste paper, and cardboard to China will have to take is to take several more photographs of the waste so it can be checked by Chinese authorities before sending it on the container ships. They will also need to be prepared for China to reject the cargo so will need a contingency plan if the waste is rejected. This was echoed by Ellin.
“Until we get to the bottom of some of the areas of uncertainty, we are reminding the recycling sector of the need to keep material exceptionally clean, take more photos than were required previously and be prepared that even this material can be rejected.”
Greenpeace data suggest the UK alone exported more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong between 2012 and 2017, which amounts to two-third of the UK’s waste plastic exports.