Shipping our plastic bottles to China produces less CO2 than sending them to UK landfill, says WRAP

19th August 2008

New study shows carbon benefits of trade with the Dragon economy.

A new WRAP study released today, 19th August 2008 has found that selling the UK’s used plastic bottles and paper for recycling in China actually saves carbon emissions. Shipping these materials more than 10,000 miles produces less CO2 than sending them to landfill at home and using brand new materials.

The transport issue is just one factor in assessing the environmental impact of exporting materials for recycling. However, it has become increasingly important to understand, as over the last ten years exports of used paper have risen from 470,000 tonnes to 4.7 million tonnes. Exports of used plastic bottles have gone from less than 40,000 tonnes to half a million tonnes over the same period.

This increase reflects the huge rise in household recycling in the UK from 7% to over 30% during that time.

We collect more paper than we can recycle, but there is strong demand for it from growing economies, such as China, where there are not enough trees to make paper.

Plastic bottles are also much in demand from China’s manufacturing industry and there is currently insufficient capacity in the UK to reprocess them here. This study shows it is environmentally less harmful to send that material to China for reprocessing than sending it to landfill in the UK.

This study sought to answer the specific question of whether the CO2 emissions from the transport outweighed the benefits of the recycling. It quantifies the CO2 emissions from transporting one tonne of recovered mixed paper or recovered plastic (PET/HDPE) bottles to China. It assumes that the carbon savings of recycling in China are similar to those identified in other countries, including the UK.

The study showed that the emissions caused by transporting the material to China account for only a small amount  - on average less than a third – of the CO2 saved by recycling. However, due to the imbalance of trade between China and the UK, the majority of container ships head back to China empty and they are producing CO2 emissions whether or not they are carrying cargo. If you take this into account, the transport emissions are even smaller - less than one-tenth of the overall amount of CO2 saved by recycling.

This study is not a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), although it forms a necessary part of the evidence base to demonstrate that exporting the material to China is environmentally sustainable. To answer this question in full, further work on the relative environmental impacts of recycling processes in China and the UK would be required.

Liz Goodwin, CEO, WRAP, said:

“It may seem strange that transporting our unwanted paper and plastic bottles such a distance would actually be better for the environment but that is what the evidence from this study shows.

“As more and more of this material is being sold to China we wanted to know the impact that was having on the environment, and specifically whether the CO2 emissions from the transport outweighed the benefits of the recycling.

“Although this study is only part of the environmental impact story, it is clear that there are significant CO2 savings that can be made by shipping our unwanted paper and plastic to China. In some cases, we just aren’t able to reprocess everything we collect or there isn’t enough of it to do so. In these cases, shipping it to China, which has a high demand and need for material, makes sense in CO2 terms.

“WRAP will continue to build both the environmental and economic case for domestic recycling.”

The study was carried out by Oakdene Hollins and critically reviewed by ERM.

  • WRAP helps individuals, businesses and local authorities to reduce waste and recycle more, making better use of resources and helping to tackle climate change.
  • Established as a not-for-profit company in 2000, WRAP is backed by government funding from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Working in seven key areas (Construction, Retail, Manufacturing, Organics, Business Growth, Behavioural Change, and Local Authority Support), WRAP’s work focuses on market development and support to drive forward recycling and materials resource efficiency within these sectors, as well as wider communications and awareness activities including the multi-media national Recycle Now campaign for England.
  • More information on all of WRAP's programmes can be found on www.wrap.org.uk