Connections with both public and private clients would bridge the gap between addressing the lack of infrastructure, a long-term solution and short-term fixes.

Despite significant environmental progress in 2017, this year has started with a significant threat: the waste import ban in China. The ban, which came into effect on the first of January, restricts the imports into China of 24 kinds of recyclable and solid waste and thus has a wide variety of potential consequences. These restrictions have been put in place to protect the Chinese market for recycled plastic by allowing China to use its own recyclable waste.

For two decades the UK waste industry has relied on sending plastics abroad for recycling with up to 500,000 tonnes of plastic shipped to China each year, thus the impact of this ban on UK capacity for managing plastic recyclables, in particular, will be strong.

In the face of this new ban, plastics are already beginning to pile up. Despite this concern, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove has admitted he has “not given it sufficient thought”. With mounting waste and inadequate preparation there are certainly risks. But adaptation could lead to opportunities for organisations from both long-term infrastructure improvements across the UK, but also short-to-medium-term in waste management design.

Despite having warning of this ban from China since summer 2017, short-term solutions have not been considered by the UK government. A fundamental change in the behaviour from government, manufacturing companies and consumers will be necessary in order to assist in the reduction of plastic waste and to create a sustainable long-term solution for waste management. Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, has warned the ban could mean “a double whammy for council tax payers” if the price of exported waste falls and the cost of UK disposal rises. She has also called on the government to deliver investment to provide more reprocessing facilities “to reuse these valuable materials, create green jobs and prevent plastic and paper pollution.”

Organisations generating significant amounts of plastics, including shopping centres and manufacturing facilities have been able to generate a revenue stream from the segregation and selling of the materials to reprocessors. The ban has placed a stop on this practice and will impact upon the revenue being generated. Virgin plastics, those made from non-recycled plastic, fetch over £1000 per tonne, and items made from previously recycled plastic can still turn a profit at up to
£400 per tonne, so the potential financial loss is significant.

The appetite for action on this is clear, and any organisation acting on this puts themselves ahead of the field both commercially and in promoting their successes.

Building on existing momentum, ranging from the tagline for the 2017 BEIS Industrial Strategy “Building a Britain fit for the future” to the outcry after Blue Planet II aired footage of marine pollution – by which Michael Gove was “haunted”. The appetite for action on this is clear, and any organisation acting on this puts themselves ahead of the field both commercially and in promoting their successes.

Facilities management companies may look vulnerable to this issue; however, they are also uniquely positioned to find a circular economy solution. As a pivotal point between their clients – creators of waste – and final waste management points, FM has an opportunity to meaningfully inform the adaptation direction for this and lead on the best practice to build sustainable solutions. The industry possesses revealing data on nuances of waste management from a consumer perspective.

Connections with both public and private clients would bridge the gap between the government addressing the lack of infrastructure in this area, a long-term solution, and those finding the short-term fixes.

The 25 Year Environment Plan, published last week, committed to “zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042” by tackling the production and waste management phases of the plastics lifecycle. Some, including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and EIA Executive Director Matthew Farrow, have pointed out that the plans are ambitious but vague, and for the moment this document is not legislation and so is largely unprotected. It will be up to the Government to prove it can walk as well as it talks. Inaction in the face of mounting plastic waste will bring innumerate potential risks – many of them we are likely not aware of yet.