Plastic pile-up: Britain struggles after China’s ban

At the start of the year, China enforced a ban on the import of plastic waste. The once go-to country for plastic recycling around the world had shut its doors entirely, leaving countries to scramble for an alternative. For Britain, this meant finding a new way of processing the 500,000 tons of plastic they had previously sent to China every year.

Prior to the ban, China had been happy to import plastic waste from around the world. The material could be recycled and used as raw material towards its own industry expansion. The country had more than enough available to bring in too, with The Telegraph noting that China imported 7.3 million tons of plastic waste in 2016 alone, which totalled up as around half the world’s usage. But environmental concerns and growing frustration over contaminated plastic and unusable waste being dropped on China’s doorstep has led the country to cease being treated as the world’s landfill.

Can Britain deal with its own plastic waste at home, or will it have to look to other shores? 8 yard skip hire supplier, Reconomy, explores the impact of the ban, and potential routes Britain may need to take.

Why Britain exported its plastic waste

Britain is struggling immensely in the wake of the ban, and you may be wondering why it has shaken our waste structure so hard. The Telegraph answered this in a recent 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 truth of the matter is that we do not have the capabilities to recycle this level of plastic at home. 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 been throwing waste onto another country’s landfill and scoring it up as our own recycling target. So, it’s understandable then that China no longer wants to deal with the world’s mis-handled plastic waste. But, without the facilities in place to recycle it ourselves, what can we do?

Are other countries an option?

It has been proposed that Britain could send its waste plastic elsewhere to be recycled. 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, the reason China banned imports of plastic waste came down to that plastic being contaminated or mixed with other waste. Other countries are no more likely to accept such a product. 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 it at home

Britain is facing a huge problem at home. 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.

Incineration is a problem all of its own: as The Telegraph warns, scientists have noted the issues of burning plastics. 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.

These tiny particulates were the crux of a study reported 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 of the study made for a shocking read: every single one of the mussels sampled were found to contain plastic shards or other fragments. And if our food is eating it, we’re eating it too; plastic has been recently confirmed as being present in the human digestive system.

The risk of ingesting these small amounts of plastic is yet to be determined. But the presence of it in our food chain is certainly concerning.

Our current outlook

More than ever, Britain needs to lower its plastic use, and become more self-sufficient at dealing with the plastic it does use. 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.

Many big-name brands are already waging war on plastic, with the likes of McDonalds axing plastic straws for 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.

Britain also made a move in banning plastic microbeads from the start of 2018. 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.

What else could the nation be doing to better handle 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.