Plastics crisis set to intensify as more countries to restrict foreign waste

A man takes a break near at a plastics recycling mill in Wuhan, China back in 2008. China moved to dramatically reduce foreign plastic waste imports in January. Photo: China Photos/Getty

Data analysis reveals sharp rise in exports to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Poland

More countries are restricting imports of foreign plastic waste, as new data shows a dramatic rise in exports of UK waste to a raft of countries following China’s decision to ban “foreign trash” in January.

An Unearthed analysis of official customs data reveals that UK plastic waste exports to countries as diverse as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Poland shot up in the first three months of 2018, after which all countries introduced restrictions on imports.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said in December that Britain had to “stop offshoring our dirt” and deal with its plastic waste at home. But he also said that in the short term, the country would continue sending its rubbish abroad.

Labour MP and member of the Environmental Audit Committee, Kerry McCarthy, told Unearthed that the government had failed to “come to its senses” since the China ban.

She said: “I thought the China ban would bring the government to its senses in demonstrating we could no long rely on exporting our plastic waste. But instead the minister… challenged the view of this as a crisis, and left it to the market to find alternative export markets.

“This shocking image of our waste stockpiling in ports overseas, with destination countries lacking the capacity to process often contaminated and low grade plastic must surely be the crunch-point for getting the policy action the industry has long called for.”

Fires in Poland, backlogs in Asia

Six months after the China ban came into effect, countries across the globe are feeling the impact.

In Poland, a series of highly polluting fires at waste dumps across the country forced the government to introduce new rules that will make it harder to import waste into the country. Announcing the restrictions, Interior minister Joachim Brudzinski blamed the China ban for causing an “increase in illegal imports to Poland of materials that should not be in our country”.

In the first four months of 2018, the UK exported 31% more waste to the country, a rise of  almost 3,000 tonnes to 11,899 tonnes, compared to the same period last year, our analysis shows.  

Vietnam has also moved to make restrictions, announcing a temporary ban on plastic and paper waste imports from the middle of this month until October. Two of the country’s biggest ports – Tan Cang-Cai Mep International and Tan Cang-Cat Lai – have reportedly become overwhelmed with plastic and paper scrap since the China ban came into force in January.

Tan Cang-Cat Lai port is currently dealing with a backlog of 1,132 shipping containers due to plastic scrap imports, according to a letter sent by officials at Tan Cang-Cai Mep to shipping companies and to the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

More on China's plastic scrap ban

UK plastic waste exports to Vietnam increased by 51% in January to April 2018 – from 9,680 to 14,570 tonnes.There is always a risk that other countries start to get flooded and close their doors

Other countries have also introduced temporary restrictions since January.

Citing “the escalating number of idle containers of recycled plastics” in Malaysia and Thailand, the shipping line APL wrote to its customers on April 19 to announce a “temporary ban of plastic scrap shipments” from the US and Canada to both countries.

UK exports to Malaysia rose sharply in the first four months of 2018, compared to the same period last year, from 15,612 tonnes to 51,549 tonnes. Meanwhile, exports to Thailand increased dramatically, from just 123 tonnes in January to April 2017 to 6, 810 tonnes this year.

If more countries introduce restrictions, figures in the waste sector said that this could add to the crisis facing the UK recycling sector and put more pressure on local authorities.

Head of the Recycling Association, Simon Ellin, said his organisation had seen the restrictions from other countries coming after the China ban and warned that the UK recycling sector would continue “lurching from crisis to crisis” until it invested in processing capacity.

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