What happens when the slow boat to China stops?

12th December 2011 Posted by

HMRC released figures last month showing that some 45 million tonnes of waste is still going into landfill. We should still be pleased that the UK has come a long way in recent years. 45 million tonnes is still a significant drop from the halcyon days of landfilling back in 1996 where almost double this amount was buried. However, if we focus on the active waste element which is still 24 million tonnes per annum, we can see that we are still in the infancy of our transformation to a more resource efficient nation.

With average recycling rates for domestic waste at 38 per cent and commercial and industrial customers beginning to recognise the need to recycle, the level of recycling will increase. Fortunately, with China and as a result Asia still developing rapidly, the demand for secondary raw materials remains strong allowing the export trade of these materials to continue.

However, I was struck by a statistic which emerged recently. This predicted that the pace of development in China is such that its internal market for recyclables would account for some 70 per cent of the base need of their reprocessing industries by 2015. What would this mean for the UK which has based its recycling industry on the back of Chinese demand? Where will these several million extra tonnes of recyclables be processed?

Initially what I believe will happen is that the quality demanded will increase as Asia picks and chooses its products. As its internal markets develop further, the demand for UK based material will shrink leading to a reduction in price and volume demand. Finally the risk is that it might not become economically viable to recycle as much in the UK and the creation of energy might be the way forward to prevent a return to landfill.

Perhaps by understanding the situation in China better the Government could begin to recognise the need to develop a reprocessing business in the UK and to become more self sufficient in base manufacturing commodities. How about we use the £1 billion of revenue that landfill tax generates for HMRC to develop ‘Green Industry’ and all the associated economic and social benefits that comes with it? Just a thought!

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