The UK Will Soon Have More Plastic Waste than it Knows What to Do With

The UK Will Soon Have More Plastic Waste than it Knows What to Do With

A new ban on importing waste into China is about to have dramatic impacts on the UK. Every year, the UK exports about half a million tons of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong. With that door suddenly shut, unless government and industrial leaders act fast, that half a tonne of plastic waste is going to pile up fast. Right now, the announcement is causing chaos, but with a little luck (and good governance) there’s a chance that this could push the UK to enact long-lasting sustainable solutions.

Why the ban?

Announced to the World Trade Organisation in 2017, the ban isn’t aimed at changing UK exports directly, but rather at curbing the volume of hazardous “foreign garbage” that China gets stuck with every year. If you’re wondering why China was accepting all this plastic in the first place, it’s because most of it is recyclable. For years, China has imported most of the world’s recyclable plastic waste and reused it in manufacturing. But every shipment is contaminated with some level of “dirty and hazardous wastes.” To reduce the damage pollution is doing to China’s people, animals, and nature, the new ban will forbid the import of 24 types of solid waste, including plastic, cardboard, and cotton.

plastic pollution on a beach in remote Scotland

Will Rose/Greenpeace

The scale of the problem

Every year, 12 million tons of plastic enters our oceans. In the UK alone, 35 million plastic bottles are thrown away every single day. This isn’t just messy; it’s deadly. A scientific expedition led by Greenpeace revealed remote coastlines in Scotland – nowhere near people – were littered with plastic, polluting food sources and disrupting what should have been pristine coastal ecosystems.

No back-up plan

When asked about the impending plastic buildup, UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove admitted, “I don’t know what impact it will have …And to be honest, I haven’t given it sufficient thought.”

The Recycling Association of the UK (TRA) has tried to meet with Gove to offer solutions. As the country’s largest producer of recyclable materials, TRA are leading the push for a more sustainable industry. TRA’s Quality First Report (2017) recommends dealing with the Chinese ban with new regulations for quality control and improvements to packaging. It also recommends adoption of the EU Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, regardless of Brexit, which promotes shared environmental goals and a Europe-wide circular economy. So far, Gove has refused to meet.

coffee cups in landfill illustrate the sort of foreign waste that China has banned importing

The take-away: implications for consumers

The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) recommends pushing for system-wide change by taxing notorious waste items like disposable coffee cups. But with the so-called “latte levy” in place, there’s no guarantee that manufacturers will adopt cleaner alternatives. Companies producing low-quality mixed materials can simply pass on the tax to the consumer, upping the cost of your morning coffee without doing nature any good. That’s why we need regulation that rewards companies using non-recyclables and pushes countries to develop better habits of dealing waste in their own backyard, instead of making it someone else’s problem.

This ban on exporting plastic pollution is a wake-up call for the UK. It’s time the government invested in long-lasting sustainable solutions to messy mixed-material waste. Humans created this problem, and humans can solve it.

Note: Please keep comments peaceful and family friendly.

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  1. Lisa Scharin (@LisaScharin)

    Guess Mr. Gove needs to hear from more people-perhaps people who may vacation there and would like to support a country that is sustainable and has good environmental stewardship!

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  2. Roby25

    Questo sarà la fine della nostra pseudo specie pensante, affogare nella immondizia!

    Reply Report comment
  3. Pammyjb

    It’s shameful, why don’t they just go back to bottles and paper carrier bags or baskets. Ever since they started charging for bags, I made several material ones which I use and when they are beyond use they can be burnt safely and the ashes dug into the soil to enrich it. Everything you buy now is packaged in some sort of plastic, I hate it because it makes the food sweat and go off quickly.

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  4. Francesca

    We must stop using plastic, and go back to bottles, and start using baskets to replace these plastic bags! California, has abolished all plastic bags use in all their Supermarkets!

    Reply Report comment
  5. Alpina Chilton

    They must do something with the plastics. This cannot continue happening. If thry don’t recycle then what will happen will be farther worst cases that will cause havoc everywhere, especially, the environment. The solution must be solved, not ignored.

    Alpina Chilton

    Reply Report comment
  6. Shasha

    One country melted the plastic and made walls/roofs for their city.

    Reply Report comment
  7. Endlesspath

    Ship it to London, Mayor Sadiq Aman Khan can take care of it. Seems like he is the best one to get some workers on it fast. Maybe he can have it recycled so some new housing can be built in London with it!
    Better yet, he can build an administration building for Hizb ut-Tahrir

    Reply Report comment
  8. Leanne

    The U.K needs to do something about this and quickly. The gov’t needs to stop pussy footing around and pull their heads out of their asses and put those heads together and come up with a viable solution. I know you guys can do it. ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    Reply Report comment

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