China Crisis – Best Kept Secret

 In Blog, Circular Economy, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Kirby, Liverpool 1979. Vocalist Gary Daly and guitarist Eddie Lundon become the core of newly formed New Wave band China Crisis. Part of a wave of new acts coming out of Liverpool in the late 1970’s and early 80’s China Crisis had moderate success in the UK in the 1980’s with five top 40singles and three top 40 albums. They are now perhaps more relevant than ever, as the band who will give their name to one of the biggest impacts on world recycling.

The China Crisis has produced headlines across the length and breadth of the UK, stirring up concerns that there will be a return to the late 1970’s when waste was piled in the streets until the government reached a settlement with refuse collectors.

In July 2017 China told the World Trade Organisation that it intended to halt the import of 24 grades of plastics, textiles and paper, by the 1st of January 2018. These materials were often contaminated with other wastes or hazardous materials, which China believed was damaging its environment.

Fundamentally there are three options for waste that cannot be recycled in the UK. Firstly, there is landfill, however, this is relatively expensive and neither socially or environmentally desirable. Incineration is perhaps slightly more ‘acceptable’ due to the recovery of energy although it also comes with a price tag.  Finally, there is the potential to export material to countries where there is a high demand for secondary resources and where it might be economically viable to recycle it. Unsurprisingly the industry, in the main, went for the cheapest short-term option of export. The dramatic drop in oil prices between 2014/15, when almost 50% was slashed off the price of a barrel of crude oil ended the economic viability of most UK based plastics recycling facilities, as virgin plastics become cheaper to use than recycled pellets. Over 250,000 tonnes of Plastics alone went to China from the UK in 2016. Had we decided to keep the value in the UK at this point potentially the infrastructure would now be in place to manage it here.

As the price plummeted, the desire to segregate materials out dropped, there was still value for quality material, however lower grades were left unsegregated, and simply packaged as mixed plastics and shipped out to China where the cost to extract any value was cheaper. This led to China becoming the world’s dumping ground, with 7.3m tonnes of waste plastics arriving on their shores in 2016.

The Best Kept Secret in all of this is that China wants material, it’s industry has invested in skills and equipment to process the world’s waste. The ban was imposed, as was the Environmental Protection Act in 1990, to improve standards. China wants to process quality materials, it no longer wants to decontaminate load after load of materials from countries too lazy to do it themselves. If the required materials can be segregated and shipped, then China is most certainly open for business.

This drive for better quality is one we feel in the UK.  The Scottish Government’s Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012, already calls out the need for source segregation of target materials to improve recycling values. Whether this improvement in source materials can open up opportunities for facilities in the UK, is open for debate.  There is certainly a discussion that needs to take place relating to the value of plastics as a valuable secondary resource compared to its calorific value of plastics and ability to help close the existing energy gap. The other consequence of recent publicity is the drive to change the world’s relationship with plastics, as single use plastics become increasingly socially unacceptable.

It looks like this could be an interesting year in resource management, with many factors in play, but what is clear is that our focus must be on further material segregation and improving the quality of the secondary resources we recover.

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