Exporting high quality plastic waste to China and the Far East is damaging the UK's recycling sector, putting ‘green' jobs at risk in the process, warn industry experts.
“The percentage of plastics being recycled in the UK is very low so there's great potential,” said Nigel Bowers, UK sales director at recycler MBA Polymers. “It's wrongly perceived as being of low value but tonne for tonne it's more valuable than steel.
“Unfortunately, this huge resource is going abroad – predominantly to China. High quality waste plastic is being lost to this country.”
Transporting waste plastic to China is very cheap – it gets shipped at minimal cost on returning container vessels that would otherwise be empty and although the Chinese government is looking to step up the level of recycling of local material there is currently no end in sight to the loss of UK-generated waste plastic feedstock to overseas buyers.
There are also concerns about the illegal exportation of mixed waste that includes valuable plastic content. One industry observer pointed out that it's impossible to know what's in the core of a bale of waste without undoing it – something that's unlikely to happen in most instances.
Given these concerns what should plastics recyclers expect in the immediate future?
“The situation for the plastics recycling in the UK could be even worse in 12 months as the vast majority of material will still be exported to the Far East,” warned Simon Carroll, managing director at Liverpool-based recycler Centriforce.
“For a business like ours we have to continually work hard to find the right materials – the right quality at the right price. Unfortunately we can't buy in top grade scrap – we have to deal with post-use material.”
This generally contains contaminants that require labour-intensive hand sorting. Centriforce has therefore invested it kit and equipment that enables it to sift low-grade film but there are still issues of quality control.
“On the bottle front things are slightly more optimistic because there are more bottle plants in place but when it comes to film recycling there're not very many. The people who used to do it have joined the export game as it's more profitable. That's the reality,” explained Carroll.
“However, what we are starting to see from people like Defra is the realisation that quality standards need to in place at the separation facilities, which is especially important given the aggressive recycling targets being set by government.”
Without these quality controls Carroll believes the situation could quickly deteriorate, especially as the current PRN/PERN regime is distorting the market for waste plastics.
“It's an unfair system,” he said. “It needs revising.”