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UK plastic waste exports to Asia plummet

China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-02-14 10:22

The United Kingdom drastically reduced its waste plastic exports to Asia in 2019, according to new data released two years on from the introduction of China's waste import ban.

Last year the UK sent 21.6 percent of its plastic exports to Asian nations. This compares to 40 percent in 2018, 57 percent in 2017 and 65 percent in 2016, according to the consultancy 360 Environmental, which evaluated UK government trade data.

"In terms of export destinations, there has been a huge shift from China and the Far East to OECD(Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries," Phil Conran, director at 360 Environmental, told China Daily.

In a drastic shake-up of its waste trade, the UK now sends more plastic to Turkey, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany than to any Asian country.

The UK used to send more than one-third of its plastic exports to China, which banned certain waste imports in January 2018.

Soon after the China ban, waste exporters, including those in the UK began redirecting large amounts of shipments to Southeast Asian nations, who then struggled to deal with the influx.

Some of these nations reported environmental damage, and foreign plastic waste dumped in Indonesia has been linked to contamination in the country's food chain, according to an analysis by the International Pollutants Elimination Network.

Several Southeast Asian leaders began to speak out against the practice of so-called "waste colonialism "and tough restrictions on plastic imports swiftly followed.

The UK now sends the majority of its waste to high-income nations in the OECD. Last year, 77.1 percent of UK plastic exports went to OECD countries. Government data also shows that the amount of plastic the UK sent abroad increased from 649,562 metric tons in 2018 to 691,993 tons last year.

On the positive side, 360 Environmental said, the UK has also increased its plastic reprocessing.

The consultancy said that while the UK remains "a long way off offsetting exports to the extent required", there was "significant progress" in 2019.

Last year, the UK recycled 449,777 tons of plastic, compared to 384,848 tons in 2018.

Conran said this trend is likely to continue, as the UK is introducing a recycled content tax on single-use plastic packaging in 2022, meaning investors will be assured of demand.

"UK recycling targets will continue to rise so investors know that there will be continued demand, especially as export quality requirements and import restrictions on plastic waste spread to more countries," Conran said.

Biffa, one of the UK's largest waste businesses, recently announced plans to invest up to 80 million pounds ($105 million) on energy-from-waste facilities over the next four years, and will spend a similar figure on new plastic recycling initiatives.

The company's Chief Executive Michael Topham told UK environmental policy magazine The ENDS Report that the China ban has "done us all a favor in the long run" and "gives us the confidence that all the materials will not be shipped to China and we will not lose control of it".

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