China bans waste imports from Europe

Europe is struggling for non-EU options for waste treatment and recycling as China tightens regulations on imported waste.
calendar icon 20 December 2017
clock icon 3 minute read

In July 2016, China notified the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that it would be banning importation of 24 categories of waste, including plastics and mixed papers, by 2018. With a total phase-out of waste imports scheduled for 2019, concerns are emerging over where European recyclable waste will be processed from now on.

European recyclers have seen this as an opportunity for growth and expansion of European recycling capacities. Ton Emans, president of the federation of European plastic recyclers (PSR), commented:
It’s a wake- up call: China made it very clear that they are not the landfill of Europe, and I think it’s totally right. In the long term, Europe can only win.

In 2015, China took on over 1 million tonnes of EU plastic waste imports, where it was sorted, often manually, in an informal, labour intensive, and environmentally costly manner.

When the import licenses for 2018 were not renewed by China’s government, it was obvious that the European market was not prepared and showed its lack of capacity for sorting waste materials. With plastic scraps submerging the EU market, prices have declined drastically, and despite best efforts to recycle, a vast proportion is being burnt or landfilled.

Excess paper is subject to strict stocking limits due to fire safety. Burning of waste paper goes against the EU’s waste hierarchy - as recycling is the preferred option of disposal – but it is reported that this is already occurring.

The problem here lies in the fact that the European market will potentially fail to meet recycling targets, due to lack of labour for waste sorting, which, in turn, could have severe environmental impacts.

Many EU institutions see the Chinese waste ban as a threat, yet EuRIC, representing European recycling industries, sees the ban both as a threat and an opportunity. With supply of scrappage far exceeding demand in Europe, it is ideal for Europe to maintain its international markets. Equally, this change provides an opportunity for an overhaul of EU recycling policy.

The European Commission will announce its Plastics Strategy in January 2018, aimed primarily at increasing the rate of plastic recycling (currently 30%), stopping leakage into the environment, and encouraging the use of recycled materials.

EuRIC secretary general, Emmanuel Katrakis, commented:

If we want to be in a better position, in a more circular economy, we need to go a step forward and pull the market into more sustainable practices by valuing the positive externalities of recycling. If we go that way, Europe will be better off in ten years’ time.

Source: Euractiv

Emily Houghton

Editor, The Pig Site

Emily Houghton is a Zoology graduate from Cardiff University and was the editor of The Pig Site from October 2017 to May 2020. Emily has worked in livestock husbandry, and has written, conducted and assisted with research projects regarding the synthesis of welfare and productivity of free-range food species.

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