Simon Ellin outlines why we must resist calls for a recyclable plastic export ban
There’s chatter, in political circles, of a ban on the exports of recyclable plastics. In my view, this would be a mistaken thing to do.
A small number of MPs and Lords in February, as part of the Policy Connect Parliamentary organisation, called for “a target of net zero exports of recyclable plastic packaging by 2030 at the latest”.
The problem with this is that it will damage legitimate businesses creating jobs, won’t necessarily lead to more investment in UK recycling infrastructure and potentially cause the cost of recycled plastic to rise.
We live in a global economy where we trade with countries around the world. The UK would struggle to survive on its own, so we import goods into this country. Almost all of the time, these goods are packaged – many in plastics. There are lots of benefits to protecting goods in plastic, including preventing them from being damaged, or in the case of food and drink keeping them fresh.
We have to ensure that we do everything we can to create quality recycling and keep markets open
As a result, an industry has built up to recycle these plastics. In some cases, that will be the LDPE film that’s wrapped around pallets and collected from businesses, or in others the bottles and containers that come from post-consumer sources and are collected by local authorities. These recycling businesses might be in the UK, but they might also be abroad near to the place where the plastic or packaging was originally manufactured.
In a global economy, it often makes sense to export these materials for recycling in their place of origin. It prevents ships from sailing back empty and the carbon cost involved in that. It means that costs of recycling can be cheaper in countries where labour and infrastructure costs are lower, which is often why goods are manufactured there in the first place.
You might be aware that at the end of 2017, China banned imports of recycled plastics. Since then, other countries in Asia have followed suit – or in the case of Malaysia and Vietnam, introduced tougher restrictions. Those latter countries recognise the benefit to their economies from developing a recycling industry and they allow for competition to occur, keeping costs low. By restricting plastic recycling to the UK only, we’ll make recycling more expensive, potentially create monopoly situations and face additional costs for putting recycled materials in our products.
We shouldn’t forget though that Europe is also an important destination, with plastic recycling hubs developing in some countries that will have particular expertise at dealing with these materials.
In recent years, The Recycling Association has been running its Quality First campaign and I’m proud to say, it has been a great success. We’ve seen companies change their packaging to become more recyclable as a result. But I’d still like to see more do that. Indeed, the recently published Resources and Waste Strategy, by Defra, will assist that.
It should also lead to more consistent local authority collection schemes that will make it easier for the public to recycle. But we have to ensure that we do everything we can to create quality recycling and keep markets open. If every part of the supply chain works cohesively, we can create a high-quality system that leads to more recycled content being used whilst keeping costs lower for everybody involved too.
We definitely need more investment in UK recycling infrastructure, but we shouldn’t close our recycling industry off from global markets while doing it.