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20 September, 2004

What's the point?

According to the Guardian, more than a third of the waste paper and plastic collected in the UK for recycling - 200,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish and 500,000 tonnes of paper/cardboard per year - is sent 8,000 miles (13,000 km) to China.

If 25,000 tonnes of used plastic bottles are collected each year, and 10-15,000 tonnes go to China, there has to be a negative effect for the UK recycling sector. I don't have a problem with the socio-economic aspect. If foreign recyclers can genuinely outcompete UK firms, fine; I'm no protectionist. However, that's not at any cost. If foreign firms cut costs via exploitative labour practices or polluting industrial processes (small, low-tech Chinese recycling firms have been known to burn plastics and contaminate rivers), it's not genuine competition, and is unsupportable.

The aspect which makes me despair is that the very idea of exporting hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste for processing thousands of miles away goes against one of the most fundamental objectives of recycling: to minimise usage of resources.
It may make greater financial sense to send a shipping container of plastic to China than to Scotland from England, as a UK plastics recycler says in the article, but there are more costs than money itself.
For one thing, consider the quantity of fossil fuels required to power the ship. A secondary problem is that plastic bottles are a low weight, high bulk commodity, so each container and hence each ship carries a surprisingly low mass of plastic; long-distance transport is one of the less efficient parts of the entire recycling process.

Once processing is completed, what happens to that plastic? Does it make sense to transport it all the way back to Britain, either as pellets for UK manufacturers or in consumer goods made in China? Or should it stay in China for domestic use? The latter might seem sensible, but that leaves the UK as a net exporter; we still need plastic for packaging, so have to make more, at further expense of energy and (non-renewable) raw materials. Is that really recycling?

I'm beginning to rant, so will stop. Read the article, which covers several other aspects I haven't mentioned.

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