China has imposed a strict ban on the import of plastic waste this year, and the move has thrown many countries into disarray. The world was highly reliant on China’s plastic recycling capability, which is second to none. Now, the doors have closed.
Britain is certainly having a hard time of it — we had sent around 500,000 tons of plastic to China every year for recycling. Suddenly, the nation needs to find somewhere else to put its half a million tons of plastic.
We’re not the only ones struggling though. For scale, China processed 7.3 million tons of plastic waste in 2016, which made up half of the world’s plastic use. Growing concerns for the environment, and rising frustration over being send contaminated waste and mixed materials instead of the declared plastics, have led the country to decide enough is enough.
Why Britain is stuck
You may be wondering why the ban has hit Britain 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.
As a nation, we simply don’t have the facilities to recycle this level of plastic waste. 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. Such material needs specialist processing after transport in a hazardous waste skip and can’t be dealt with via conventional means. As such, with the contaminated plastic batches being too costly to sort and recycle, they often end up on a landfill.
Britain has been sending its waste abroad to other landfills and calling it ‘recycled’. 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?
No other shores
It had been proposed that Britain could simply ship its plastic waste elsewhere for processing. Although no one has the recycling capabilities that China presented for plastic waste, places such a Vietnam could pick up some of the business. But, with the issue being down to our own poor handling of the exported material, would it be a matter of time before other countries followed China’s lead and banned the import of plastic waste too? 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 ourselves
Britain can’t tackle the issue at home as it currently stands. 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. But 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.
This was observed in a new 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 were a rude awakening. 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. 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.
Where to go from here
Surely, prevention is better than cure, and Britain needs to prevent its plastic waste to avoid this problem in future. 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.
The war on plastic has certainly become global, with the likes of McDonald’s announcing their replacement of plastic straws in favour of paper. 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.
Progress was also made with Britain’s ban on microbeads. 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 more can Britain be doing 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.