Waste import ban could send plastic to landfills

5:51 am on 3 November 2017

There are fears about where New Zealand's plastic, paper and other waste will end up when it can no longer be recycled in China.

Landfill, Timaru

(File photo) Photo: Samuel Mann / CC BY 2.0

China takes more than half the world's waste exports. It announced in July that it would ban imports of certain waste products by the end of the year because contaminants mixed in with the imported recycling were seriously polluting its environment.

The Ministry for the Environment said in 2016, China imported $21m worth of products that would be caught up in a ban - $8.2m worth of plastics, $9.6m of unsorted paper, $3m of steel slag and less than $20,000 worth of textile wastes.

Fluctuating prices make it hard to translate that into quantities, but figures from Plastics New Zealand shows more than 30,000 tonnes of plastic waste was exported in the year to September, with about half going to Hong Kong and China.

Plastics New Zealand Environmental Projects Manager Simon Wilkinson said the ban has had a knock-on effect on global plastic prices, meaning some were now worth far less.

He said it was possible some businesses, which had previously onsold plastic, would now dump it as it would be cheaper to do so.

New Zealand Product Stewardship Council coordinator Sandra Murray said some smaller councils might also find it uneconomical to recycle in certain situations.

"It might mean that more plastic goes to landfill, especially if contamination rates are high in their area.

"They might not be able to cover the additional costs associated with it."

She said in the past three years landfill waste had increased by 20 percent, and the focus on recycling was a red herring for the real issues driving consumer waste.

Producers should be thinking more about creating zero-waste products, Ms Murray said.

"It's easy for them to focus on recycling because they don't have to change anything they do."

WasteMINZ chief executive Paul Evans said it was not yet known what the impact of the ban would be, but the biggest challenge was likely to be with mixed plastics - grades three to seven - most of which were recycled overseas.

"They don't command a great commodity price and so it's not particularly economical for them to be recycled.

"And so a drop in those commodity prices will make that more challenging for councils and recyclers to make that stack up from a financial perspective."

But Mr Evans said there were other markets and options available for recycling.

'There is no need for it to go to landfill'

Smart Environmental managing director Grahame Christian said his company, which is one of New Zealand's largest waste and recycling companies, sends around 12,000 tonnes of plastic to China each year.

But he said he was not at all worried about the ban saying it might not come into effect as China's government has promised.

His company and other large recyclers would be able to hold onto the plastic in the meantime if needed, he said.

"We will weather the storm, if there is one, or we'll seek alternative markets or alternative uses, but there is no need for it to go to landfill."

The Ministry for the Environment said in a statement it was yet to be seen how New Zealand markets would respond to the import ban, but previous options included improving onshore processing and finding alternative overseas markets.

It said its Waste Minimisation Fund provided financial support to projects to reduce or recycle waste and had awarded more than $80m to more than 130 projects.

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