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The crisis facing plastic recycling

This is an article for the South Wales Evening Post

There has been controversy in Swansea of late over the council's decision to no longer collect soft plastics for recycling, despite the fact that these materials are capable of being processed. This was an issue I raised at a recent council meeting.

The response I got was very comprehensive. Essentially, the market for recycled plastic has effectively collapsed following China's decision to ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of the year.

Their decision to no longer import yang laji, or “foreign garbage”, applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper. It will result in China taking a lot less material as it replaces imported materials with recycled material collected in its own domestic market, from its growing middle-class and Western-influenced consumers.

For some time now, China has been the dominant market for recycled plastic. It is likely that much of the waste that they currently import, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go. This impact will be far-reaching. The 27 countries within the EU27 currently export 87 per cent of the recycled plastic they collect directly, or indirectly (via Hong Kong), to China.

Local councils such as Swansea need to find alternatives. Plastics collected for recycling, for example could go to energy recovery (incineration) to generate electricity and improve energy self-sufficiency, recycled plastic could be used to provide chemicals to the petrochemical sector, fuels to the transport and aviation sectors, food packaging and many other applications. The one place we need to try and avoid sending them is to landfill. This sort of plastic can take between 20 and 1000 years to decompose.

The reliance on one market to solve our waste and recycling problems has left us with a massive headache.  However, it is also an opportunity to rethink how we deal with waste. to increase the proportion of recycled plastic in our own manufactured products, improve the quality of recovered materials, use recycled material in new ways and find different ways to package our goods so that we produce less waste in the first place.

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