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Sea-Change for Plastic Waste Exports

Reuters reported this week that Indonesia is planning to tighten its rules regarding plastic waste imports. This follows a rapid rise in shipments over the past year, following the Chinese import ban. Indonesia is one of several countries to experience this rapid growth, which far outstrips any apparent recycling capacity.

This is becoming a well-rehearsed issue, so I thought I’d try to put some numbers behind it to see what trends can be identified. For the data below I looked at the volume of the UK’s exports of plastic waste each month since 2014, as collected and published by the HMRC. The UK is identified as one of the leading exporters of plastic waste.

The first thing to note is that the volume of plastic waste exported has fallen in the past couple of years. The total peaked at 789.9 million tonnes in 2016 but fell back considerably to 613.2 million tonnes in 2018. Data for the first five months of 2019 shows a total of 209.7 million tonnes, which can be crudely extrapolated to around 503 million tonnes as an estimate for the whole year.

Where does all this plastic get sent? There’s been a major change in the destinations for plastic waste. The main driver is of course the Chinese import ban which came into effect in 2018. If we look back to 2014, China accounted for 36% of UK plastic waste exports, equal to 275,760 tonnes. Hong Kong was second with 218,295 tonnes, or 29%. We can assume that China was the final destination for most if not all plastic sent to Hong Kong in that year. Behind China/Hong Kong were India, Vietnam, the Netherlands and Malaysia, although none had a share greater than 5% in 2014.

andy-graph1Move forward to 2018 and the picture is radically different. China and Hong Kong have all but disappeared. No one country dominates, with Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia and Taiwan heading the field. The Netherlands is still an important destination, and Poland has appeared in the mix from almost nowhere in 2014.

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The situation looks to be changing again in 2019. The graph below illustrates several interesting trends. It compares China with three of the leading newer destinations, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey. Plastic waste exports to China collapsed rapidly in the latter part of 2017. There was a brief one-off resurgence in May/June 2018 as, I’d guess, people rushed to beat the import ban. In the corresponding period, shipments to Malaysia rose rapidly, but have declined equally quickly since mid-2018. There is a similar although less-pronounced trend for Indonesia. In contrast, Turkey appears – as of mid-2019 – to be increasingly the destination of choice for UK plastic waste exports.

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The main conclusion would appear to be that China has rapidly been replaced by a range of countries, the geographic mix of which can be expected to change as the local economic and regulatory conditions evolve. Which is where we came in with the planned changes in Indonesia as an example. Aside from the countries in the graph below, Taiwan, Poland, Thailand and Spain have also grown rapidly as plastic waste destinations in the past year.

While the expansion of waste exports to new countries is not in itself a bad thing – there’s money to be made after all – much depends on the infrastructure, regulatory and physical, of the countries doing the importing. I’ve written recently that a lot of ‘recycling’ may be nothing of the sort and ends up in the sea. China tightened its rules after realising that waste imports weren’t being dealt with in a responsible manner, and others such as Indonesia are following suit.

Couple this with greater efforts in developed countries to reduce plastic waste and to deal with it locally, and there is growing global scope for investment in additional plastic recycling facilities. The AcuComm database currently holds around 200 such facilities around the world. Around half are in Europe, but a growing number are in Asia or elsewhere. The following is perhaps a large caveat, but with the right regulatory and commercial environments there is no reason why plastic waste cannot be dealt with in a manner which is not both environmentally appropriate and profitable. Check the AcuComm database here to explore what’s already being done.

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