Special report by Alan Evans & Iwan Lewis
The announcement by China that they intend to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of this year, including polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) drinks bottles, other plastic bottles and containers, and all mixed paper, in a campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage” has provided the UK Government, Welsh Government, local councils and the British Plastics Federation with a dilemma about what they are going to do regarding the potential build up of waste and associated costs, and penalties, which could ultimately be passed on to householders.
The Chinese have also increased quality controls for all other waste including cardboard, something other markets are likely to follow, which will also put the British recycling industry under huge pressure. The impact could see local authorities reducing collections because they are not economically viable.
The EU has ruled out penalties on single-use plastic products, in favour of raising public awareness of the damage consumer plastics are doing to the world’s oceans.
Greenpeace has heralded the proposed ban on microbeads by the UK Government as “Great news for our environment and a positive sign of Britain’s global leadership on ocean plastics.”
Llanelli Online contacted Friends of the Earth for their views. Waste campaigner Julian Kirby said: ”While China may not stop taking all of our recycling, they’ve indicated that they will be cutting back on imports from countries that don’t sort their recycle properly – and that includes the UK. Plans in the pipeline could mean more comprehensive bans on waste imports that take us closer towards complete bans.
“As recently as December, China their updated plan to ban waste imports from 2019 so as to focus on Chinese domestic supplies, creating their own ‘closed-loop’ economy within China. It’s all the more reason to literally deal with our own rubbish.”
The British Plastics Federation take the view that to stop plastics entering the sea from the West, the plastics industry would like to see a tougher stance on littering. They state: “It is highly doubtful that simply providing alternative materials will actually reduce littering in the UK, as this is an issue of personal behaviour. It should be noted that the types of products that enter the marine environment from the UK tend to be those that have been irresponsibly littered — not packaging materials for fresh produce that are typically consumed at home and then disposed of responsibly.”
Takeaway boxes and bubble wrap are to be taxed in an attempt to tackle the growing usage of single-use plastics as part of a raft of new green measures. In the autumn budget Philip Hammond called for evidence into the use of everyday plastics and how a charge could help shrink the UK’s waste.
Supermarket chain Iceland recently announced that they will become the first major retailer to commit to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products. Iceland specialises in frozen food, much of which is plastic wrapped. They have announced that they would go plastic-free within five years to help end the “scourge” of plastic pollution.
The BPF claim that they are surprised by Iceland’s announcement. They state: “Plastic packaging is used because it vastly reduces food waste and is resource efficient. If Iceland implement these measures, there is a risk that the weight of the packaging, carbon emissions, food waste and the amount of energy to make that packaging will increase. Growing and transporting food consumes a lot more energy than that used to make the packaging protecting it. Iceland’s proposals target products that will have absolutely no impact on reducing marine litter, which in the UK typically comes from items littered outside our homes. Its environmental footprint will increase, not decrease.”
The BPF’s RecyclingGroup sees China’s announcement as an opportunity and hopes it will have the effect of increasing investment in the UK’s recycling infrastructure. For many years, we have repeatedly called for changes to the current PRN system to increase reprocessing within the UK. To support this growth, standards should be introduced for used plastics to simplify the sorting process and large organisations should commit to plastic products containing a percentage of recycled content as part of their procurement policies.
Closer to home in Wales the First Minister Carwyn Jones was questioned about recycling during the Plenary on January 9th. He was asked by Joyce Watson AM to make a statement on efforts to recycle plastic in Wales.
He replied: ”We have set high targets for recycling in Wales, including plastic. All local authorities collect plastic for recycling and businesses will be encouraged to do so under the environment act provisions. In addition we are working with the industry to increase treatment capacity for plastics which are collected.”
The First Minister also added that they are ‘considering a tax levy on disposable plastic’ and that there is a ‘great opportunity’ for Welsh businesses to get involved with the plastic recycling industry.
The Welsh Government has set statutory targets for recycling with a 70% target by 2025 and to be a zero waste (100% recycling) nation by 2050. Local authorities that fail to meet the targets could face large financial penalties. Those penalties could be passed on to residents.
Here in Carmarthenshire the recycling depot in Llangadog has been closed for more than a year and queues form at the other sites as people do their best to recycle. The Council have been slow in delivering blue bags and some have questioned why the authority and Cwm Environmental, the company set up to recycle in the County are not doing more for residents. They have four household waste recycling centres in the county including Nantycaws, Llanelli, Ammanford and Whitland. Annual accounts show the company as making a profit.
A spokesperson for the county council said: ‘’We are currently recycling approximately 60% in Carmarthenshire.’’
The Landfill Allowances Scheme (LAS) limits the amount of biodegradable municipal waste – such as paper, cardboard and kitchen scraps – that councils are allowed to send to landfill. If councils exceed these limits, it can lead to fines.
Figures show Carmarthenshire has again reduced the amount of waste it is sending to landfill. During 2014/15 the county sent 7,175 tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) to landfill – that’s just 31% of its 23,151 tonnes allowance.
In January 2018, it was announced that there would be tougher fines for people who were caught fly-tipping in Carmarthenshire.
In 2015/16 over 36,000 fly-tipping incidents were recorded in Wales, costing the Welsh taxpayer more than £2million to clear up.
Cllr Philip Hughes, executive board member for enforcement, said: When people have complete disregard for their environment, communities and fellow residents, we will not hesitate to issue fixed penalty notices.
“The fact that we now have additional powers and can impose even more expensive fines, we hope that people will think twice before fly-tipping.
“We have four recycling centres in the county, and over 150 recycling banks, we also have a kerbside collection and can arrange to collect bulky items from households.”
There have been calls for new enterprises to make use of the plastic which may mean an increase in small companies taking a creative look at what can be done with our discarded plastic.
There may be some justification for schools, colleges and universities to join in the debate as the problem is going to have a major impact on future generations throughout the country.
One scheme that looks at innovating ways of recycling is Wrap UK, where they re-invent how people design, produce and sell products. They also rethink usage of products and redefine the possibilities of re-using and recycling.