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If waste is such a valuable resource, why is UK exporting so much of it?


Plastics Recycling in Beijing, China

Recycling centre in Beijing. Improvements in Asia’s domestic recycling and processing capacity means demand for waste imports will diminish. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA


Powered by article titled “If waste is such a valuable resource, why is UK exporting so much of it?” was written by Oliver Balch, for on Monday 14th July 2014 15.20 UTC

British exporters are facing some worrying headwinds. The value of the pound is riding high and the engines of economic recovery in the Eurozone (the UK’s main export market) are yet to start firing.

But there’s a bright spark on the horizon and it’s rubbish – literally. An estimated 887,465 tonnes of waste-derived fuel – is now sold overseas (pdf), up from zero tonnes six years ago. Likewise, the export of recovered plastics experienced a nine-fold increase in the decade up to 2011. Millions of tonnes of paper, metals and other UK recyclate (pdf) are finding their way to international markets as well, with China taking the lion’s share.

Market opportunity overseas

Speaking at a conference organised earlier this month by the all-party Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG), Dan Rogerson MP stressed how waste now enjoys the status of a resource. “And, as with any resource, trade with other countries is important and makes a meaningful contribution to the UK economy.”

Take scrap metal. According to the British Metals and Recycling Association (BMRA), UK recyclers exported around 13m tonnes of reprocessed metal in 2011/2012, contributing £3.7bn to the UK’s balance of trade (pdf).

“Our members are exporting to over one hundred countries around the world. It’s an astonishing feat really given that in the 1970s and 1980s we were a net importer”, said Ian Hetherington, BMRA’s director general.

Rogerson, who serves as UK parliamentary under secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, also highlighted the strong environmental benefits of the UK’s burgeoning waste exports. “They divert waste from landfill here and they reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, he noted, referencing in particular the renewable energy benefits of waste-derived fuel, which is increasingly used as an alternative feedstock to coal in power generation.

A report released by the APSRG late last year, entitled Exporting Opportunity? (pdf), makes a range of recommendations for boosting UK waste exports. The list centres primarily on improvements in quality – a move partly inspired by a crackdown in China on contaminated waste imports into the country. Stricter penalties for illegal operators and improved inspection of waste shipments also feature.

A range of factors explains the sudden surge in UK waste exports. Demand is obviously central. Recycled metals, which retain their essential properties when reprocessed and are often cheaper than virgin metals. Heavy investment in recycling facilities in Asia over recent years has spawned demand for UK recycled materials such as paper, glass and plastic. Similarly, the proliferation of so-called “energy from waste” plants – power-generating incinerators – in northern Europe has led to a spike in demand for waste to burn as fuel.

There are other reasons too. Over-supply is one. UK waste exports are, to an extent, evidence of the success of domestic recycling. Over two-fifths (43.2%) of all waste was recycled in England in 2012/2013, up from 12% in 2001.

Reprocessing capacity has failed to keep pace, however, leading to a growing waste surplus. Regulation has played its part too. The Landfill Tax, introduced in 1996, often makes it cheaper to export waste than dump it in landfill. Exports help the waste management sector meet ambitious new recovery and recycling targets as well.

Missed opportunity at home

Churlish though it may sound, the UK’s successful waste export story isn’t without its cause for concern.

One of the clouds hanging over it is energy security. With increasing domestic energy prices and growing concerns over future energy supply, does it make sense that the UK is sending a source of renewable energy overseas? Rogerson has his doubts: “When such materials are exported, the energy recovered from the waste does not contribute to UK renewable energy targets and is therefore effectively a lost resource.”

A related worry centres on resource security more generally. Global population growth and ever increasing consumption is already leading to huge price volatility for metals, food and non-food agricultural output, as a recent report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation spells out. Rather than exporting our waste, shouldn’t we be looking to reuse it ourselves?


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