British companies are said to be in “turmoil” over the “garbage ban” – announced on January 1 – given they have shipped more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic scrap to mainland China and Hong Kong since 2012.
The waste accounts for almost two-thirds of the UK’s total plastic waste exports, according to analysis by Greenpeace.
“We don’t have many – if any – viable alternatives for these materials at this time,” chief executive of the UK Recycling Association Simon Ellin told HuffPost UK.
While other export markets exist, including Malaysia, Vietnam, India and Indonesia, they simply do not have the capacity to match the volume of material previously accepted by China, Ellin explained.
A post-Christmas boom in plastic waste is likely to make the situation even worse, with low-grade, low-value “jazz” plastics like carrier bags, bin liners and bread bags are a particular cause for concern.
“Those are the materials which are very very difficult, if not impossible, to move,” Ellin said, adding that members of the recycling association are already seeing higher levels of waste than normal in their yards.
Ellin continued: “We really don’t know what is going to emerge from the market over the next two or three months to deal with this material.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that in the short term, we will see recyclable plastics being burned.
“Modern day incinerators are pretty clean and environmentally friendly, but these are finite resources and when you have burned them, you have lost them forever.”
Greenpeace UK said it was time for Britain to “finally get to grip” with it’s throwaway plastic problem.
Oceans campaigner Elena Polisano said: “Now that China has decided they’ve had enough of our waste, it’s obvious that the UK’s recycling system simply can’t cope with the mountain of plastic waste we generate.
“We urgently need two things to happen – investment in recycling infrastructure to ease the pressure, and a serious plan to prevent plastic production from continuing to grow.
“That means developing sustainable alternatives to single-use, disposable plastic products, and the way to encourage innovation in this area is to hand full responsibility for the products to the companies designing them.”
Ellin also called for “supply chain responsibility”, saying the situation in China has offered “the opportunity to focus attention on how we generate and deal with waste in this country”.
“For too long, designers, manufacturers and retailers have been passing the buck down the system, producing far too much plastic and packaging and giving very little attention [to where it goes],” he said.
“Before, the last person in that supply chain was China. But China have turned round and said: ‘We don’t want your crap anymore – why are you sending all your crap?’
“Now, that material has to stay in the UK.”
Ellin added: “We are going to have to have a radical rethink and force the people at the top of the supply chain to start taking responsibility for the materials they produce.”
A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are continuing to work with the waste industry and the Environment Agency to understand the impact across the sector of the Chinese government’s proposed restrictions on waste imports.
“We are also looking at ways to process more of our recycling at home as part of our resources and waste strategy.”