What is the real impact of China’s Waste Import Ban?
Dr Tim Johnson, our Technical Director and expert in all things waste discusses what China’s Waste Import Ban really is, what it could mean for the UK, and how we can deal with it going forward.
Plastic is the hot topic of 2018
What a 2018 it’s been so far for devoted followers of everything plastic in the news. Hardly a day seems to go by without some story appearing in the news about plastics waste or recycling. There is little doubt that in the UK at least, this was all propelled into the public consciousness recently by the final episode of Sir David Attenborough’s incredible documentary, Blue Planet II, which provided stunning images of the impact of plastic waste on the aquatic environment.
I’m sure anyone who saw it would agree the juxtaposition of such beautiful photography and heart-breaking suffering made a powerful impression. It was also a graphic example of the way the properties that make plastics so useful for society, such as being hard-wearing and corrosion-resistant, are often the same ones that can make them damaging to the environment when disposed of irresponsibly.
What does China’s Waste Import Ban really mean?
On the other hand, I suspect the recycling of plastics more generally has been a subject of intense interest within the chattering classes at recycling industry dinner parties for most of the second half of 2017. The reason for this is the watershed decision by the Chinese government to ban imports of 24 different grades of waste for recycling, including plastics and paper.
This ban came into force at the start of this year, meaning that most of the half a million tonnes of waste plastic (and three times that amount of waste paper) currently being sent from the UK to China every year will now have to find a new home. Since this ban also applies to every other country sending its waste, there is a near certainty of oversupply of lower grade waste plastic to those other countries still willing to accept our rubbish and therefore to lower prices and even tighter margins for recycling companies.
However, I’m sure you’ll find it very reassuring to know it’s not a total waste import ban, because China will still accept high quality waste plastic, i.e. material with very low levels of contamination by other types of plastic or other materials. The problem here is that the UK waste industry has evolved over recent decades on the assumption that China will take our poorer quality waste and now cannot separate plastics efficiently enough to meet their demands. And it’s not that the technology does not exist for doing this, just that the cost of upgrading waste sorting equipment makes it uneconomic right now.
The issue goes further than China’s Waste Import Ban on plastic
Now, while you contemplate all this news, you could get yourself a coffee, but of course that brings us to the other great recycling story in the public view – ‘disposable’ coffee cups. This is another classic example of a thing that can be recycled entirely appropriately, but only with specialist equipment that is too expensive for most recycling companies. The result is that nearly all takeaway cups are not recycled.
There are solutions to all these problems of course. For instance, various new cup designs have been developed using different materials that can be recycled more easily and no doubt we will be seeing more cup disposal points provided for us soon. Companies such as Iceland are also moving away from plastic packaging for food and Theresa May has announced plans for the UK to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, but not until the end of 2042. Yes, 2042.
What will happen to all the extra plastic waste?
Changing the way we dispose of waste plastic takes a long time and in the interim all that unwanted plastic will have to go somewhere. Some is already going to places like Turkey, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia, but the sheer quantity of extra waste plastic and paper chasing these markets means that most of the UK material will end up in energy from waste plants or (worst of all) landfills.
This means that for some time, and possibly many years, there will be another increase in the amount of hazardous waste being generated by these facilities. The reason for this is most of the unpleasant heavy metals, acid gas-making elements and other pollutants are collected in the gas cleaning systems of these plants as a fine dust, or Air Pollution Control Residue (APCr), to give its technical name.
Enough APCr is being generated in England and Wales every year to fill over a hundred Olympic-sized swimming pools, and it is predicted this could rise from 282,000 tonnes per year currently to as much as 600,000 tonnes per year by 2020. At present the majority of this APCr material is being disposed of in hazardous waste landfills, despite exceeding the approved limits for chlorine in one of the key tests such materials undergo as part of the regulations for safe disposal of waste.
If landfilling waste that is technically ‘too hazardous to landfill’ sounds odd, it is only allowed because of a special derogation by the UK government that has been in place for many years and despite many assurances that it will be removed, the derogation remains in force.
How plasma technology can help the Waste Import Ban
Now to us in Tetronics, burying APCr in the ground seems a waste of, well, waste, because Tetronics has developed many technologies for treating hazardous waste materials, including all manner of ashes from incinerators, and recovering useful products from them.
Tetronics’ plasma melting systems convert most of the APCr into Plasmarok®, a clean and safe product similar to natural obsidian, which has been approved by the UK Environment Agency for use as a recycled aggregate. The single most hazardous part of the APCr is usually its chlorine content, but this is concentrated up in the plasma furnace exhaust gas to the point where it can be recovered as hydrochloric acid, which is another saleable co-product. The remaining fly ash from the plasma system has high levels of heavy metals such as lead and zinc, which can often also be recovered by specialist smelters and refiners, leaving an even smaller final amount of ultimate waste for final disposal.
It is unlikely that any APCr treatment process could ever be truly ‘zero waste’, but here at Tetronics we believe are close to that goal. With lower grade plastic and paper-based wastes now likely to be diverted in increasing amounts to energy from waste facilities, Tetronics’ plasma technology is well-placed to recover the maximum possible range of useful products from the swelling tide of APCr.
Click here to contact us and find out more about how our plasma technology works and can help you.
Click here to find out more about our Air Pollution Control Residue (APCr) solutions and how they can help with China’s Waste Import Ban.