The Chinese Conundrum

There seems to be a lurking suspicion out there that most of the UK’s recycling gets sent to China.

People complain that this is a farcical state of affairs which negates the value of recycling. Some seem to think that, once recycling gets to China, it’s more likely to be buried or burned than recycled. Peter Jones, senior consultant at Eunomia, assesses whether these these ideas have little or any basis in reality.

It is certainly true that China imports household dry recycling from the UK. China has a need for metals, plastics, paper and card, a little of which we are able to satisfy. But despite a degree of interest from the public in where their recycling goes, exports are hard to quantify precisely.

Some councils publish the end destinations of their recycling, but it isn’t always easy to trace. The sorting facilities to which mixed recycling is sent, for example, may receive waste from several sources; and material may be sold on to various buyers on the spot market. In such cases, there is a limit to how accurately one can trace a council’s recycling to its end destination.

Data

Statistics are improving, though, as WasteDataFlow’s Question 100 is rolled out across the country. The question replaces several previous ones and makes it easier for councils to record the supply chain through which their material passes. Having the means by which to record the information also provides a fresh impetus for councils to make sure they obtain it, so far as possible.
England’s councils moved onto Question 100 in tranches through 2014/15, so there isn’t yet any published analysis of the data; however, it became compulsory in Wales much earlier, from April 2013. Eunomia analysed the end destinations recorded by Welsh local authorities, and found that, by tonnage:

  • Only 16% of dry recycling was indicated to have been exported – although no definite end destination was recorded for a further 17%;
  • Over 90% of the exported material was paper and card; and
  • Organic recycling (the composting of food and garden waste) makes up around a third of recycling in Wales, of which only a miniscule fraction was reported to have been exported.

China is far from the only recipient of UK recycling exports (though it is the world’s biggest); but at the very most, one third of Wales’s dry recycling (mostly paper and card) could possibly be going there, and realistically the figure will be significantly smaller. We cannot be sure that what is true of Wales applies equally to England; Wales has a higher prevalence of kerbside sort collections of dry recycling, which may make the end destinations easier to trace and might affect whether UK reprocessors choose to buy the material. However, this is the best indication currently available regarding the scale of UK household recycling exports.

Objectionable?

Ought we to find exports to China objectionable? There are good reasons to want to see recycling put to beneficial use in the UK economy. The more reprocessing we undertake, the bigger the share of the value added to materials we are able to retain. A recent Eunomia report for Suez highlights the potential opportunity for growth that a more circular economy offers.

However, environmental concerns regarding whether the CO2 impacts of transporting recycling the thousands of miles to China outweigh the benefits of recycling have been thoroughly explored and are not well founded. A 2008 study for WRAP found:

“The emissions caused by transporting the material to China account for only a small amount – on average less than a third – of the CO2 saved by recycling. However, due to the imbalance of trade between China and the UK, the majority of container ships head back to China empty and they are producing CO2 emissions whether or not they are carrying cargo. If you take this into account, the transport emissions are even smaller – less than one-tenth of the overall amount of CO2 saved by recycling.”

It’s pretty clear, then, that on one of the key environmental benefits of recycling, there’s no significant reason to disparage such exports.

Of course, the claim that exporting recycling to China has environmental benefits presupposes that waste is in fact recycled. There is no shortage of media insinuations that this is not the case: during the recent furore over recycling rejects, the Daily Express commented that:

“As for the rest, no one should assume that ends up being recycled, either. Some is exported to China where there is little record of what happens to it.”

Likewise, the Daily Mail opined that the reject rate was unsettling, “especially when added to tales of recycled waste being dumped in China” – not mentioning that the only source for such tall tales is one of its own discredited articles.

Such suspicions tend to be fuelled by conflating concerns about illegal trade in waste, particularly in waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE), with the legal trade in dry recyclable materials. But the two are entirely separate issues, with entirely different economic drivers.

WEEE

There certainly are examples of poor management of WEEE throughout the developing world, including China – Adam Minter has documented this extensively. A major reason is that burning WEEE or subjecting it to polluting chemical treatments are cheap ways to extract the valuable metals contained in circuit boards and wires, while disposing of the less valuable bulk of the discarded equipment. Treating WEEE properly is more expensive, but far less polluting.

In order to ensure that WEEE is recycled in an environmentally responsible way, the UK (along with all EU countries) has banned its export to non-OECD countries. It is therefore likely that little of the WEEE recycled there originates from the UK; indeed, much seems to be generated in China itself.

Investment

Chinese companies pay to receive household recyclables, such as paper, card, metal, rigid plastic containers and glass, from the UK, and since their value is in their use as raw materials, the economic incentive is to make good use of as much of what is purchased as possible. China has invested in some of the most modern facilities in the world, including efficient and clean paper mills, to sort and reprocess recyclables, has set new reprocessing quality standards and has been concerned to improve the quality of the material it imports. It makes no sense that they should do any of this if the intention was simply to bury or burn it.

The oft-repeated view that recycling is pointless because most of it ends up in China has little to support it. While some recycling is exported to China, the evidence indicates that most is reprocessed in the UK. When recycling is exported, this isn’t a bad thing from an environmental perspective. And the imputed poor handling of UK recycling in China appears to be based on irrelevant evidence regarding WEEE. So, can we lay this myth to rest?

A version of this article first appeared on www.isonomia.co.uk.

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