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Chinese ‘National Sword’ crackdown creates recycling bottlenecks in Europe

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Restrictions on imports of some recyclable materials were put in place to stem the tide of hazardous “foreign garbage”, China tells World Trade Organisation, but recyclers warn of EU “turmoil”.

Anyone who has ever seen the rows of containers full of compacted recyclables waiting to be shipped off to China from Southampton and other UK ports will have concluded that there is nowhere near enough capacity to process all this material at home.

While the practice of sending the packaging we discard on a sea journey of thousands of miles has long been controversial, it is undeniably a key plank of Britain’s waste-management strategy. The situation is much the same in other European countries - hence the alarm among recyclers earlier this year when China announced it would henceforth be rejecting much foreign junk.

In a formal notification to the World Trade Organisation earlier this year, the Chinese government said large amounts of “dirty or even hazardous wastes” had been found mixed in with the solid waste that can be used as a raw material for manufacturing new products.

“To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted,” the notification stated.

Along with its decision to ban all scrap plastics from entering the country from abroad, China is also understood to be intending to prevent certain metals, textiles and unsorted mixed paper from entering the country.

The crackdown, known as ‘National Sword’, has caused acute alarm among recycling groups in Europe and North America because the volume of recyclable material China takes is so vast that it is unlikely any other combination of countries would be able to take up the slack.

According to the UK-based Recycling Association, China often imports more than 200,000 tonnes of cardboard every month from the UK alone. This compares with just 8,000 tonnes taken by the whole of continental Europe.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, criticised China’s “draconian measures”, which the government of the one-party state has claimed are necessary to protect the environment from dangerous “foreign garbage”.

He warned that “ships coming from China with the products we want to buy will return empty”, adding, “We will increase our use of fossil fuels as a result of this, because not only will vessels return empty to China, other ships will be required to send our material to other destinations”.

In a press release sent out last night, Brussels-based organisation Plastics Recyclers Europe warned of “turmoil” and stated: “This abrupt change in the market conditions demonstrates the urgency needed to implement a real and sustainable waste market in Europe. This can only be done by driving the quality upwards by changes in design for recycling, collection and sorting.”

Earlier this month, US media reported that the Trump administration was planning to raise concerns over the issue.

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