China’s recently-imposed restrictions on importing recyclable material has had major repercussions on waste management in the UK – but the biggest pain is yet to come.
The financial implications of the ban has predominantly been felt by local councils and waste management suppliers who are no longer able to obtain rebates on mixed recyclables that used to be shipped to China – and are instead being hit with higher disposal costs for the same materials.
Conversely, commercial and industrial businesses in the UK have largely been insulated from the impact, with major waste management players prepared to take a hit on margin rather than pass all those costs onto their customers. It’s an approach that’s unsustainable. In the fullness of time, UK businesses will need to rethink their approach to managing waste as the true impact of China’s ban finally shows its teeth.
The fees charged by many players in the UK waste collection industry have, for some time, failed to keep pace with a growing cost-base. In the past five years, the average cost-per-bin lift has grown by less than 6% – but during the same period, landfill tax and RPI have increased by 4.2% and 8.2% respectively. The effect of the Chinese restrictions, and the increase in disposal costs as a result, will put additional pressure on waste collectors ultimately forcing them to raise prices.
A common response has been for businesses to shift from using a mixed recycling bin to a cardboard-only bin – with plastics and other mixed recyclables going into general waste. The approach may have some short-term benefits to the waste producer – but it also plays lip service to the concept of environmental sustainability.
Businesses have an ethical responsibility to apply the waste hierarchy to ensure that all waste is segregated and presented for recycling wherever possible. Placing mixed recyclables in general waste shows a disregard for managing precious resource and encouraging a circular economy – long-term benefits go beyond short economics.
There is a better way. Instead of focusing disposal costs per bin, businesses should take a closer look at the waste they produce and explore proactive ways of proactively reducing it. There are two simple steps to adopting this ‘value-based approach’.
Primarily, companies should identify a waste management partner that will work with them to – literally – lift the lid on their bins and their practices to identify avoidable waste within their businesses. This aspect alone can have great benefit but the second component is to establish behaviours that segregate unavoidable waste appropriately. This would ensure that, from a sustainability perspective, companies are ‘doing the right thing’.
There is a growing evidence base to show that managing waste more efficiently and responsibly can yield cost-savings but this comes only when we look beyond the immediate – a saving for tomorrow may require some investment today.
Fundamentally, until waste producers are willing to do the right thing and to manage waste efficiency within their businesses – to view waste as a resource, to segregate unavoidable waste in the best way possible, to think carefully about where that waste is going and to pay a fair rate to ensure the material is recycled wherever possible – the UK will continue to fall short of its environmental responsibilities. Moreover, many businesses will continue to pay over the odds for their waste management. And our planet will, ultimately, pay the highest price of all.
China’s ban on the importation of mixed recyclables could be a watershed moment for waste management in the UK. But it doesn’t have to be a crisis.
Stephen Cameron, business development director, SWRnewstar