The effects of the Chinese ban on importing plastic waste are starting to be felt in the UK, as experts warn that local authorities are now stockpiling rubbish.
The situation will become “more intense” in the UK and US around March and into early summer, Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association, said on Tuesday.
Warning signals are already starting to emerge, he said.
Lee Marshall, CEO of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), said: “I’m aware with one local authority... they were stockpiling in their depot and they were three or four days away from having to send the materials to energy for waste so they could comply with all their site regulations.”
His comments to the MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee come after China announced a ban on importing plastic wastes earlier this month.
Britain has shipped more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic scrap to mainland China and Hong Kong since 2012.
The waste accounts for almost two-thirds of the UK’s total plastic waste exports, according to analysis by Greenpeace.
Georgeson told MPs: “The shock that the Chinese ban restriction will present to our system is dramatic.
“We’ve built a system over the last 15 years, we’ve increased our recycling rates in the UK almost completely on the back of the Chinese export market. Not entirely, but almost.
“And over a period of time I think we have become comfortable, and to a degree complacent, that there was a ready and easy market for our economy to take advantage of. We lost our way somewhere in the last decade.”
Georgeson said that the “eye had been taken off of the ball” in terms of home market recycling systems.
He added: “Ministers lost interest towards the end of the Labour government, the next lot of ministers didn’t really show much interest at all because everybody sat back and was comfortable that recycling rates was going up and China was taking the material.
“Now we’re paying the price for that because we are some years behind where we could have been in our home economic development and by home I mean the UK and the rest of Europe.”
Experts told the panel that it was difficult to give a definitive account of how much waste has built up in the past few weeks.
Pat Jennings, head of policy at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), said the “full impact” of the ban has not been seen yet, but warned about the potential repercussions for the future.
“Our members are not reporting any systematic stockpiling at the moment but all those working in the commercial environment are making contingency plans,” Jennings said.
Craig Curtis, director at the Recycling Association, said: “We don’t have any figures for the amount of tonnes building up but we certainly know that it is building up because... there’s lost of tonnage being offered and people trying to scramble for a market somewhere.”
Jacob Hayler, executive director at the Environmental Services Association, said: “There’s always surplus Christmas build up at this time of year, but the feedback we’re getting is there’s certainly a lot more this year than in previous years.”