China's appetite for UK recycling returns

New survey finds that demand for UK waste paper and plastic has bounced back after last year's collapse in prices

The high profile crisis that gripped the UK recycling sector late last year appears to have been fully laid to rest, after a new survey from the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) revealed that demand for UK waste material from Chinese recyclers has largely recovered.

Demand for recyclable paper and plastic material from Chinese firms collapsed last autumn amidst fears that demand for their end products would drop off as a result of the recession.

As a result, the price of many waste materials slumped, with the price of mixed paper and cardboard waste falling from about £70 a tonne to less than £10 a tonne in a matter of weeks. Some waste management firms were unable to find a buyer for collected material, sparking reports that businesses and local councils would be forced to stockpile recyclable material or send it to landfill.

However, prices for waste material have recovered steadily throughout this year and, according to WRAP's survey of over 200 Chinese waste processing firms, the vast majority are now looking to source waste material from the UK.

The survey found that just eight per cent of paper reprocessors and 13 per cent of plastic reprocessors were no longer purchasing recovered material from the UK.

It also revealed that while some concerns remain about medium-term demand for their end products, such as recycled cardboard packaging and plastic bottles, the vast majority expect recycling capacity to remain at current levels in the short term.

Marcus Gover, a director at WRAP, welcomed the survey as further evidence that "China is still open for business as far as UK-recovered materials are concerned". However, he added that while the recovery of the export market was encouraging, it should not distract from the need to bolster UK recycling capacity.

Philip Mossop, development director at environmental and waste consultancy The Green House, said that the survey's findings were supported by the recent recovery in the price of most recyclable materials.

"Demand from China has been consistent and prices haven't fluctuated by more than five per cent since February in our case," he said. "Demand may be dampened, but it is unlike the automotive industry, for example, where demand completely disappears; instead we saw a dramatic fall which then corrected itself and has now returned to perhaps 75 per cent of what it was in 2008."

He added that there were also signs that increased recycling capacity in the UK was beginning to have an impact on the amount of waste being shipped to China for reprocessing.

"Demand in the domestic market has risen to the point that it now matches the current levels of financial reward as China offers," he said. "Last week and this week, for example, we are sending only 10 per cent of our material to China, simply because the revenues offered internally by UK mills has been close enough to the price offered by the Chinese mills."

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