A year ago, experts warned that the UK could face a mountain of waste plastic as China imposed a ban on waste imports.
In recent years, the UK has heavily relied on China to take our unwanted plastic packaging. Three years ago, the UK was exporting half a million tonnes of plastic to China and Hong Kong – accounting for almost two-thirds of all our plastic sent abroad.
China introduced its ban on “foreign garbage” as part of a move to upgrade its industries 12 months ago. At the time, the UK recycling industry warned that the decision would be a “game-changer” and that it would be a struggle to deal with the country’s waste.
Where is that plastic mountain?
Well, it hasn’t appeared – partly thanks to other countries taking our waste plastic instead, and partly because we are burning more of it.
In the wake of mass public alarm about plastic pollution we may also be producing less plastic waste, although it’s impossible to be sure of the figures
Who has taken our waste instead of China?
In the 12 months to October 2018, our analysis of Environment Agency figures shows that the UK exported a total of 611,000 tonnes of recovered plastic packaging to other countries.
In the previous 12-month period (ie to October 2017), the UK exported 683,000 tonnes.
So that works out as a drop in exports of 72,000 between 2016-17 and 2017-2018.
It’s clear that other countries have imported much of the plastic packaging previously reprocessed by China.
But incineration in the UK has also increased, and we may be seeing the benefits of the Blue Planet effect on public behaviour.
The fact is we can’t be certain from the data what exactly has happened to the shortfall.
Where did our plastic packaging go in 2018?
Well, where there’s waste plastic there’s potentially profit – because some of it can be lucratively recycled. So some nations have geared up their reprocessing plants to welcome our waste with open arms.
Many Chinese recyclers moved their operations abroad to benefit from cheap flows of plastic in the region before then re-exporting it back to China as recycled pellets.
But not all of it has been welcomed. Several countries including Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan have heavily restricted imports because shipments were blocking ports and the quality of the material being imported (from all countries) was poor.
So while the amount of plastic taken by China dropped by 94% between 2016-17 and 2017-18, Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia led the pack in gobbling up the slack.
Malaysia imported 105,000 tonnes in total and was way out in front. That total was 42,000 (68%) more in 2017-18 compared with the previous year.
The second most popular destination was Turkey (80,000 tonnes).
Poland is in third place on the league table – although it actually received slightly less UK plastic in 2017-18 than it did in 2016-17. It’s not clear why.
In fourth place is Indonesia, which along with Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam – is in the top 10 for the quantity of waste plastics polluting the ocean.
Which countries recorded the biggest increase in UK plastic over the period?
Another way of analysing the data is to rank the numbers in terms of net increase (ie which countries recorded the biggest increase in 2017-18 compared with 2016-17).
On this measure, Malaysia and Turkey remain at the top while Indonesia stays in the top five…read more.