Nation experiences 'short-term pain' as companies scramble to set up recycling operations for paper, plastics
On an industrial estate next to Heathrow Airport, workers sort through disposable cups and glasses of all shapes and sizes－among them coffee cups discarded in street bins by Londoners on their way to work and pint-size containers left on beer-stained stadium floors by soccer fans.
The cups are sorted by type and tightly packed into bails that will soon be turned to pulp at a reprocessing plant.
In time, that pulp will be used to make new goods－pencils, rulers, notebooks and even picnic tables.
In recent years, much of this waste would have been exported to China, but China's decision to stop importing other countries' waste has shaken the United Kingdom out of its complacency and forced it to address its failures to reduce waste and recycle it.
Simon Ellin, chief executive of the UK Recycling Association, said China's ban on paper and plastic waste imports, effective Jan 1, could breathe new life into the United Kingdom's recycling industry.
The ban has led to a stockpile of such waste in the UK and other European nations as they search for alternate export markets and new ways to process the materials domestically.
"What we are experiencing is short-term pain for long-term gain," Ellin told China Daily. "I think there's a massive opportunity now for the UK."
The nation is a net exporter of some reclaimed materials, including mixed paper, cardboard and plastic. In 2016, the UK collected over 1 million metric tons of waste plastic for reprocessing, but only a third was recycled domestically, according to the UK's Environment Agency.
It also exported slightly more than half the 5 million tons of cardboard and paper collected in the country. Environmental organization Greenpeace estimates that between 2012 and 2017 Britain sent 2.7 million tons of scrap plastic to China.
Ellin said the UK does not have enough plastic and paper processing plants to deal with the amount of waste the country produces.
"We've got the opportunity now for the UK government to give us the tools we need to invest in internal UK infrastructure," Ellin said. "But it's got to be government-led and there has to be a whole supply-chain approach, where everyone takes responsibility－from the designers, manufacturers and retailers through to local councils and processors."