Shipping plastic bottles creates less CO2 than landfilling

A new Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) study released in 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 approximately 470,000 tons to 4.7 million tons. Exports of used plastic bottles have gone from less than 40,000 tons to half a million tons over the same period.

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

The UK collects more paper than it can recycle and there is strong demand from growing economies, such as China, where there are not enough trees for 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 ton 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.