At the start of the year, China announced that it would no longer be accepting plastic waste imports from the world in a move that has left many countries scrambling through the year to find an alternative. Britain in particular has had a difficult time finding a new way to recycle the 500,000 tons of plastic it once shipped to China.
Previously, China had accepted a huge amount of the world’s waste plastic, as it was a great raw material to help fuel the country’s industrial expansion. In fact, The Telegraph reported how China used a massive 7.3 million tons of waste plastic in 2016, recycling half of the world’s waste plastic. So why the change of heart?
According to reports, the country’s rising concern over environmental issues, alongside tension regarding contaminated plastic and mixed waste being added to plastic exports to China, has led the country to refuse to import any more of the world’s plastic.
For many countries, this is a huge problem as no one has the recycling capabilities that China has. Britain is already finding a difficult backlog of plastic waste now piling up. What alternatives does it have to sending its plastic to China?
The problem of plastic in Britain
Why is Britain so underprepared for dealing with its own plastic? The Telegraph answered this in a earlier report on the ban: leaders in the recycling sector have admitted they haven’t a clue how to go about dealing with the ban and its resulting plastic backlog.
The land simply doesn’t have the same level of plastic recycling facilities as China. Hence, we sent our plastic waste abroad to be recycled. But, as the Daily Mail revealed, even though Britain has been shipping its plastics abroad to be “recycled” and counting it towards its yearly goal, the amount of plastic actually being recycled is a different story. Much of our exported plastic waste is contaminated, dirty, or mixed with other waste not labelled on the container. As such, with the contaminated plastic batches being too costly to sort and recycle, they often end up on a landfill. The country has, essentially, been throwing plastic onto a landfill elsewhere, and calling it “recycled”.
It is understandable that China no longer wants to deal with the world’s mis-labelled waste. But, without the facilities in place to recycle it ourselves, what can we do?
No other country to go to
One initial proposal was to send the waste to other countries. Although no one has the recycling capabilities that China presented for plastic waste, places such a Vietnam could pick up some of the business.
However, with the problem being contamination and mixed waste, rather than the plastic itself, it is highly likely other countries will draw the same line as China in order to stop incorrect waste being sent to them to deal with. After all, the issue would still stand that the plastic waste being sent over is not what was promised, leaving another country to deal with unusable plastic.
Dealing with plastic at home
Britain lacks the necessary resources for an at-home solution. Without the necessary resources to recycle such a scale of plastic on home turf, it looks like most of our plastic waste will end up back on landfills or incinerated.
Another suggestion has been to incinerate the plastic, but as scientists point out, this is a harmful way of approaching the problem. Pollutants like dioxin and hydrogen chloride are released upon incinerating plastics. Also, tiny particulates are dispersed too. These can all contribute towards environmental and health issues. An example of this was found in a new study described by The Independent. The study took a sample of mussels from Britain’s coastlines and supermarkets, and they were tested for plastic traces and other debris. Mussels are a good way to sample the ocean’s water, as they filter-feed, meaning they can consume other particles from the water other than their intended food.
The results were frightening to say the least, with every single mussel sampled containing plastic particles. And if our food is eating it, we’re eating it too. Although the risk or lack thereof is yet to be confirmed, it is still an awful result that drives home just how much plastic is flooding our lives.
The current plan of action
Britain needs to develop ways of processing its own plastic waste, and it also needs to lower its plastic usage generally. Supermarket chain Morrisons has recently made the news as they reintroduced the classic paper bag for fruit and vegetables, replacing the usual small plastic bags on offer. The Metro says the shop hopes the change will reduce the amount of small plastic bags being used by more than 150 million per year.
It’s been well documented that many catering outlets are waging a war on plastic straws, with McDonald’s replacing theirs with paper alternatives. In fact, The Guardian was pleased to show that the move is re-introducing a business Britain has not seen for several decades, as a paper straw factory is set to open in Wales to supply McDonald’s. Plus, as of January 2018, Britain banned microbeads entirely. These tiny little plastic particles were found in many cosmetics and cleaning products. But Global Citizen pointed out a loophole in the ban that means leave-on products, such as make-up, are still exempt from the ban.
Plus, there’s the 5p charge on plastic bags in an effort to dissuade unnecessary usage, though in England, a loophole exists concerning stores with less than 250 employees. This could soon be changing to encompass all stores regardless of their size.
Could Britain be doing more to deal with its plastic waste? With the looming backlog of plastic upon us, now more than ever it is important for us to look at our use of plastic and how we can use alternatives. It is not merely a case of finding somewhere else to landfill our plastics – it is the responsibility of us all to reuse and recycle plastics wherever possible.
This article was researched and created by 8 yard skip supplier, Reconomy.