China bans foreign waste – but what will happen to the world’s recycling?

Christine Cole, Nottingham Trent University

The dominant position that China holds in global manufacturing means that for many years China has also been the largest global importer of many types of recyclable materials. Last year, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3m metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan.

However, in July 2017, China announced big changes in the quality control placed on imported materials, notifying the World Trade Organisation that it will ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of the year. This campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage” applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper and will result in China taking a lot less material as it replaces imported materials with recycled material collected in its own domestic market, from its growing middle-class and Western-influenced consumers.

The impact of this will be far-reaching. China is the dominant market for recycled plastic. There are concerns that much of the waste that China currently imports, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go.

This applies equally to other countries including the EU27, where 87% of the recycled plastic collected was exported directly, or indirectly (via Hong Kong), to China. Japan and the US also rely on China to buy their recycled plastic. Last year, the US exported 1.42m tons of scrap plastics, worth an estimated US$495m to China.

Plastic problems

So what will happen to the plastic these countries collect through household recycling systems once the Chinese refuse to accept it? What are the alternatives?

Plastics collected for recycling could go to energy recovery (incineration). They are, after all, a fossil-fuel based material and burn extremely well – so on a positive note, they could generate electricity and improve energy self-sufficiency.

They could also go to landfill (not ideal) – imagine the press headlines. Alternatively, materials could be stored until new markets are found. This also brings problems, however – there have been hundreds of fires at sites where recyclable materials are stored.

Time to change our relationship with plastic?

While it is a reliable material, taking many forms from cling film (surround wrap) to flexible packaging to rigid materials used in electronic items, the problems caused by plastic, most notably litter and ocean plastics, are receiving increasing attention.

One way forward might be to limit its functions. Many disposable items are made from plastic. Some of them are disposable by necessity for hygiene purposes – for instance, blood bags and other medical items – but many others are disposable for convenience.

Looking at the consumer side of things, there are ways of cutting back on plastic. Limiting the use of plastic bags through financial disincentives is one initiative that has shown results and brought about changes in consumer behaviour. In France, some disposable plastic items are banned and in the Britain, leading pub chain Wetherspoons has banned disposable, one-use plastic drinking straws.

Deposit and return schemes for plastic bottles (and drink cans) could also incentivise behaviour. Micro-beads, widely used in cosmetics as exfoliants, are now a target as the damage they do becomes increasingly apparent and the UK government has announced plans to ban their use in some products.

This follows similar actions announced by the US and Canada, with several EU nations, South Korea and New Zealand also planning to implement bans.

Many local authorities collect recycling that is jumbled together. But a major side effect of this type of collection is that while it is convenient for the householder, there are high contamination levels which leads to reduced material quality. This will mean it is either sold for lower prices into a limited market, will need to be reprocessed through sorting plants, or will be incinerated or put in landfill. But changes to recycling collections and reprocessing to improve the quality of materials could be expensive.

Alternatively, recycled plastic could be used to provide chemicals to the petrochemical sector, fuels to the transport and aviation sectors, food packaging and many other applications.

The ConversationThe problems we are now facing are caused by China’s global dominance in manufacturing and the way many countries have relied on one market to solve their waste and recycling problems. The current situation offers us an opportunity to find new solutions to our waste problem, increase the proportion of recycled plastic in our own manufactured products, improve the quality of recovered materials and to use recycled material in new ways.

Christine Cole, Research Fellow, Architecture, Design and the Built Environment, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CIE-MAP win global waste management award

Members of the CIEMAP team based at Nottingham Trent University were runners up in the ISWA global waste management publication award.

The International Solid Waste Association Publication Award was created to honour the author(s) of publications deemed to have made an exceptional contribution to the field of solid waste management. An international panel of judges chose three publications.

The CIEMAP researchers Christine Cole, Alex Gnanapragasam and Tim Cooper came second in a strong field with their paper ‘Towards a circular economy: exploring routes to reuse for discarded electrical and electronic equipment‘ (Science Direct, 2017, Elsevier).

The paper looks at ways old electrical equipment can be utilised more effectively via repair, reuse or recycling to reduce the carbon footprint of the items. The alternative is transporting the discarded equipment to the landfill at high cost to the economy and the environment.

Read more on the team’s work in their blog on The Conversation website.

Read more about the ISWA publication award.

CIE-MAP Evaluates the Potential for Industrial Energy Demand Reduction and Decarbonisation in the Chemicals Sector

Chemicals are a complex collection of many diverse and interacting sub-sectors covering a wide range of feedstocks, processes and products. It can be characterised as being heterogeneous; embracing a diverse range of products (including advanced materials, cleaning fluids, composites, dyes, paints, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and surfactants). Physical outputs are moved around on an international scale within or between major companies that are truly multi-national. The industry is also highly focused on private R&D and protective of information, meaning that data availability is particularly poor. This high technology sector takes full advantage to modern developments in electronics and information and communications technology (ICT), such as for the automatic control of chemical process plants and automation in the use of analytical instruments. The scale of operation of chemical firms range from quite small plants (of a few tonnes per year) in the fine chemicals area, where high purity is required, to giant ones in the petrochemical sector. Batch production is employed by SMEs where small quantities of chemicals (up to around 100 tonnes per annum) are required. In contrast, continuous plants are typically used in cases where a single output, or related group of products, are demanded with plants of several thousands to millions of tonnes per year. They often produce intermediates which are converted via downstream processing into a wide range of products, such as benzene, toluene and xylenes (BTX), ethylene, phenol, and PVC from petrochemical refineries or via ammonia plants. Overall, the chemicals sector gives rise to the highest industrial energy consumption; mainly due to low temperature heat processes (30%), electrical motors (19%), drying/separation processes (16%), and high temperature heat processes (11%). It accounts for some 19% of GHG emissions from UK industry – the second largest sector after steel.

This strategically important sector for the UK has been studied by CIE-MAP researchers at the University of Bath (Geoff Hammond and Jonathan Norman, along with former PHD student Paul Griffin)*. They employed a Pareto-like approach in order to evaluate the opportunities and challenges of industrial energy demand reduction and decarbonisation in the chemicals industry [see the Sankey energy flow diagram below]. Sub-sectors that use a large amount of energy were prioritised via bottom-up studies, and emissions from those that could not easily be treated in this way were estimated via ‘cross-cutting’ technologies. The improvement potential of various technological interventions were identified, and currently-available best practice technologies were found to the potential for further, short-term energy and CO2 emissions savings in chemicals processing. But the prospects for the commercial exploitation of innovative technologies by mid-21st century are far more speculative. A set of industrial decarbonisation ‘technology roadmaps’ out to the 2050 were also developed, based on various alternative scenarios. These illustrated possible low-carbon transition pathways that represent future projections which match short-term (say out to 2035) and long-term (2050) targets with specific technological solutions so as to meet the key energy and carbon saving goals. These roadmaps help identify the steps needed to be taken by industrialists, policy makers and other stakeholders in order to ensure the emissions reduction from the UK chemicals industry. The attainment of significant falls in carbon emissions over the period to mid-Century will depends critically on the adoption of a small number of key technologies [e.g., carbon capture and storage (CCS), energy efficiency techniques, and bioenergy], alongside a decarbonisation of the electricity supply.


* Griffin, P.W., G.P. Hammond and J.B. Norman, 2017. ‘Industrial energy use and carbon emissions reduction in the chemicals sector: A UK perspective’, Applied Energy: available online 12th August [DOI: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2017.08.010].

Research Video: Industrial Energy, Materials and Products


Here is a short video with contributions from members of the team talking about their research into Industrial Energy, Materials and Products.

The two and a half minute video features various members of the centre describing their work and their overall mission to look at the entire life-cycle of products used in the UK.

The centre as a whole aims to pinpoint areas where energy reductions are possible through changes in design, materials, industrial processes, consumer behaviour and product longevity.

Briefing: Embodied carbon dioxide assessment in buildings: guidance and gaps

CIEMAP researcher Jannik Giesekam has published a new briefing paper in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Engineering Sustainability. The paper is an accessible summary of the current and upcoming guidance related to embodied carbon assessment in buildings. This follows on from previous CIEMAP work showing the urgent need to reduce embodied emissions from construction activity.


The construction industry, through its activities and supply chains as well as the operation of the assets that it creates, is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Embodied carbon dioxide emissions associated with the construction of new assets constitute a growing share of whole-life emissions across all project types and make up nearly a quarter of all annual emissions from the UK built environment. Yet these embodied emissions are still rarely assessed in practice, owing to the perceived difficulty and lack of supporting guidance for practitioners conducting an assessment. This briefing paper retraces recent advances in the field of embodied carbon dioxide assessment and highlights existing and forthcoming practical guidance that could support more widespread assessment. The paper constitutes a where-to rather than a how-to, directing assessors towards appropriate resources, of which there are many. Although the paper does highlight some remaining gaps in the field and identifies corresponding research priorities, recent additions to the body of guidance are generally sufficient to support more widespread assessment. Now, the industry must demonstrate its commitment to tackling climate change by using this guidance to drive deeper carbon dioxide reduction.

Read the full paper at:

Alex Rodrigues and Kyungeun Sung participated in CIED Summer School

Alex Rodrigues and Kyungeun Sung participated in The Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED)’s first Summer School on Accelerating Innovation to Reduce Energy Demand. The Summer School took place between 10th and 12th of July 2017 at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. Twenty eight doctoral, postdoc and early career researchers from multidisciplinary backgrounds including Alex and Kyungeun attended the Summer School to learn and discuss about socio-technical approaches, governance, policy mixes, and roles of users and intermediaries for accelerating low carbon innovations (or sustainability transitions).

The speakers included Prof. Frank Geels, Dr. Paula Kivimaa, Dr. Karoline Rogge, Prof. Johan Schot and Prof. Benjamin Sovacool.

To read the blog about the Summer School, please click here.

To view the list of presentations, please click here.

Having more, owning less: how to fight throwaway culture

File 20170724 11666 9pmrin
Waffle making with rented waffle maker from the Library of things.
[Sebastian Wood/Library of Things]

Until the advent of cheap credit and cheaper item costs, for many consumers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s rental was the most accessible way of obtaining products such as televisions, video recorders and washing machines that were high cost and frequently required repair. Now we buy cheap and pile high or just chuck out when something stops working – even if we could fix it.

The consumption of household goods in Western society is now at its upper limit, so much so that Steve Howard, Ikea’s head of sustainability, said it had reached “peak stuff”. While he was quick to say that this did not contradict Ikea’s target to double sales by 2020, he suggested a break from a prevailing “take, make, use, throw” economic model towards a circular model that encourages repair, reuse and collaborative ventures that share the use of products.

At the heart of the circular economy is the sharing economy, in which products and services are leased for a time. It’s about access rather than ownership, and any number of things can be shared, from transport, property and consumer goods (such as tools and kitchen appliances), as well as skills and knowledge.

Care: paying it forward.

Participation in the sharing economy lets you use under-utilised assets and even spare time to earn additional income.

To the future …

There have been routes to borrowing items for many years – hiring formal clothing for events, for example, or car sharing schemes that are now commonplace in many cities. And despite more recent funding cuts, public libraries still offer access to books, music and films, while big businesses such as Amazon Kindle, Netflix and Spotify mean there is no need to actually own physical, hard copies of media items.

But sharing, borrowing and reusing is now becoming something that businesses are actively engaging in. Take the Riversimple Rasa – a hydrogen fuel cell car that has been designed specifically within a car-share business model.

The Rasa.

After an initial failure, SpaceX’s attempts to recover and reuse its Falcon 9 booster met with success, and in 2017 one recovered booster was used to launch a communications satellite. Rival company Blue Origin is also developing its reuseables. It means that in the age of space travel, we may already be taking advantage of cheaper, recycled technology.

Falcon 9 launch in March 2017.

Libraries of things

Back down to Earth, local community schemes have the potential to share expensive and rarely used items and change the way household goods are consumed. Grassroots examples include the Library of Things in London, a community business providing low-cost access to items such as DIY tools, sewing machines, camping and gardening equipment, carpet cleaners, projectors and musical instruments.

While sustainability is at the heart of the project, which resists an own everything, throwaway culture, the library is also a social space with a practical purpose. It reinvents the traditional models of renting, swapping, bartering and gifting, and also offers a place to meet and learn new skills through classes, workshops or one-to-one instruction in cooking, sewing, furniture making and general DIY skills.

This kind of scheme empowers people to use the items they borrow and to do things for themselves. And given that the average electric drill is in use for just 15 minutes each year, and is kept in storage for the rest of the time, it’s clear that many “household” items don’t really need to be owned at all. And sharing or borrowing means a better environmental impact.

More for less

The right to ownership and property is deeply rooted in Western culture for reasons from social status to convenience. Nevertheless, increasing the number of items that are leased or rented is feasible – the sharing economy offers financial savings and access to better quality goods in the short term, while reducing people’s personal carbon footprints, and in the case of projects like Library of Things and repair venture, Restart, a greater sense of community and skills sharing.

Established businesses may see these enterprises as a threat to their business models. After all, if consumers share or rent things, this might impact on sales. However, it could instead incentivise manufacturers to produce more reliable, durable products which they would retain ownership of and lease to consumers, remaining responsible for maintenance and replacement costs. This would mean further incentives to design and produce longer-lasting, reliable products which could easily be repaired or re-manufactured and passed onto less demanding customers at a lower cost.

The ConversationSharing as part of a circular economy promotes better efficiency in materials, which reduces the lifetime carbon emissions of products that are designed and maintained for optimum life spans and used more intensively. It allows for a growth in consumption without the corresponding demand for resources. This is one area that needs addressing if we are to stand a chance of reaching the targets set in the Climate Change Act and meeting commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Christine Cole, Research Fellow, Architecture, Design and the Built Environment, Nottingham Trent University and Alex Gnanapragasam, Research Fellow in Sustainable Consumer Behaviour, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Living in a Material World: A Win-Win for Improving Energy Efficiency?

An 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions produced within the EU by 2050 from 1990 may sound impressive, but it is not the whole story, as we discuss in a new paper published in Climate Policy.

The EU’s ‘Hidden’ Carbon Footprint

There is more than one way to calculate national carbon footprints and the way emissions are currently counted casts EU countries in a favourable light. Climate targets focus on greenhouse gases produced within the EU, not those required to support the consumption of its residents. While emissions produced within the EU’s territory – by its factories, power plants, buildings, cars and so on – are declining, emissions driven by EU consumption are rising.

Greenouse gases become embodied in products as energy is used, transforming raw materials into buildings, clothes, phones or cars. Some of these materials and products will be mined and manufactured abroad, and the EU imports more than it exports. As a result, the EU ‘consumes’ about 40% more emissions than it produces.

In our research, we looked across the whole EU supply chain (including overseas territory) to see where greenhouse gases are expended in the materials, transportation, construction, use, disposal and replacement of everything from buildings and cars to furniture and packaging. We calculated how many of these emissions are included/excluded from existing EU climate policies and whether policies could be extended to capture additional emissions as materials are transformed into products. Cutting carbon along product supply chains can also reduce production costs, so addressing the full supply chain emissions could realise cost savings too.

Climate Policies Neglect Supply Chain Opportunities

The EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) is not doing enough to incentivise low carbon innovations in energy intensive industries and even if it was effective, the industries it addresses only produce 45% of the EU’s emissions. Alongside renewable energy targets, the EU’s climate package relies on energy efficiency measures to deliver its climate targets. Energy efficiency standards have made progress in reducing the energy consumed when using electronic goods, heating buildings and driving cars (i.e. in use). Yet this does not address all the energy needed to produce the EU’s homes, cars, phones, roads, food etc.

Taking a closer look at buildings and cars purchased by EU residents: the EU’s Building Performance Directive tackles the energy efficiency of buildings in use. However, an equivalent amount of the carbon used to heat buildings (i.e. in use) is used in their construction. Whilst 30% of the supply chain emissions are produced in sectors covered by the EU ETS (mainly power and material processing sectors), and are arguably addressed by existing climate policies, 30% sit outside EU climate policy altogether.


For cars, we can see that nearly three quarters of the supply chain carbon is emitted when driving (i.e. in-use) and subject to energy efficiency standards. All in all, however, 20% is left outside the scope of EU climate policy.

Extending European Energy Efficiency Standards to Include Material Use

This same analysis we have applied to cars and buildings can equally be applied to appliances, electronics, furniture, clothes, packaging etc. Their supply chains emit the equivalent of 40% of EU production emissions, with two thirds completely outside the scope of existing policies. Therefore there is significant potential for EU product policies to address climate change in this area.

Energy efficiency regulations and standards could be extended to include embodied emissions. For example, the Ecodesign Directive, the EU’s tool to improve the energy efficiency of electronics and appliances,  does have a mechanism to address some aspects of embodied emissions, including promoting easy to repair designs which would reduce emissions embodied in material use. However, this was introduced when embodied emissions data was sparse and of poor quality. Without mandatory material efficiency standards this has not been utilised.

By addressing material efficiency alongside energy efficiency our research indicates that these measures can enhance the policy package for climate mitigation. There is however work to be done on designing the right policies to exploit these opportunities and this needs to be underpinned by a mainstreaming of knowledge of embodied emissions flows into policy, as well as research. In the ideal scenario we can provide a truer picture of the EU’s carbon footprint while simultaneously uncovering ways to substantially reduce it and save costs in the process.


Read the original article here.

CIED-CIEMAP workshop held on implications of Energy Return On Investment (EROI) for energy policy

A one day workshop in London examining relations between energy and economic growth on 30 June 2017 brought together over 30 representatives of the research, policy, and finance communities. The workshop focussed on the concept of Energy Return On energy Investment (EROI) and its potential implications for energy policy within government and the wider energy / economic policymaking community.

Energy Return on Investment (EROI)

The metric of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) measures how much energy is needed in any extraction process to deliver a quantity of energy output.

Trends in EROI can provide useful information around the changing quality of an energy resource, and the relative impacts of physical depletion and technological improvements. In the transition to a low carbon economy, awareness of this measure and its economic implications could provide a useful addition to the suite of analytical tools that inform energy policy development.

The role of energy in economic growth

During the workshop, speakers outlined the need to consider the role of energy as both an enabler of economic growth, and as a potential constraint on it. Conventional economic models tend to equate the importance of energy in the economy to its cost share, around 5 to 10% of GDP, but other theoretical and empirical approaches suggest that it plays a much more important role in economic growth.

Importantly, it was shown that the energy return on investment from conventional fossil fuels is in decline, and there is a wide range of estimates for the EROI of renewable energy sources, some of which are relatively low. This could lead to what one speaker called the “Red Queen” effect, whereby it is necessary to run harder just to stand still in economic terms – since it requires increasing effort to obtain the same amount of energy. Some speakers argued that an economy needs a certain level of net energy to maintain and grow economic output, but there were different views on the level of net energy that would be needed to sustain and grow the UK economy.

Future research needs

Despite differing views, there was wide agreement that further policy-relevant research is needed in this area. Key points identified for the research community included the need to:

  • Work towards a more consistent and robust estimation method for EROI and net energy, that allows different energy sources to be compared at the point of use stage;
  • Communicate not just EROI values, but also trends, set against threshold limits (“minimum” EROI required);
  • Work more closely with economists and the policy community to facilitate greater mutual understanding of the issue on both sides.

The workshop was hosted by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and organised and funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) research programme, the Centre for Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) and the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIE-MAP) – two of the Research Councils UK’s End Use Energy Demand Centres.


introduction (link)

Tim Foxon, CIED, University of Sussex: Energy and Economic Growth: Learning from past transitions

Michael Kumhof, Bank of England:Energy and Economic Growth: Many Questions, Some Answers June 30, 2017

Gael Giraud, Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and University Paris-1, Chair Energy and Prosperity: Some thoughts on EROI and macroeconomics

Victor Court, EconomiX, Université Paris Nanterre: Energy-Return-On-Investment (EROI):The accessibility of energy and its link with economic growth

Paul Brockway, UK Energy Research Centre and CIE-MAP, University of Leeds: UK fossil fuel futures

Marco Raugei,Oxford Brookes University: EROI & Energy Policy (2) (Key UK renewables: PV, wind, biofuels)

Related paper
Brand-Correa L.I., Brockway P.E., Copeland C.L., Foxon T.J., Owen A., Taylor P.G., (2017)  Developing an Input-Output Based Method to Estimate a National-Level Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Energies 2017, 10(4), 534 Available at:

Read the original post here.

The UK’s Emissions and Employment Footprints: Exploring the Trade-Offs

Marco Sakai, Anne Owen and John Barrett from CIEMAP published a study on the trade-offs between the UK’s emissions and labour footprints. Their findings indicate that the UK generates an annual average of 25 million jobs worldwide via international trade, along with 525 Mt of CO2 on average per year, around half of its emissions footprint. This has important policy implications, since reducing UK imports can contribute to generate less emissions abroad, but this could also affect development overseas by limiting the amount of jobs in export sectors of UK trade partners. The findings also have implications for UK trade after Brexit.


During the last decades, the UK economy has increasingly relied on foreign markets to fulfil its material needs, becoming a net importer of both emissions and employment. While the emissions footprint reflects the pressure that consumption exerts on the planet’s climate, the labour footprint represents the employment that is created across the globe associated with the demand for products and services. This paper has a two-fold objective. First, it focuses on analysing the behaviour over time, drivers, and sectoral and regional composition of both UK’s footprints. Second, it explores the relationship between both measures by estimating the elasticity between the growth of emissions and employment embodied in imports. The results show that around half of the emissions associated with UK consumption were generated outside its borders, while only 40% of total employment was domestic. This has important policy implications. Reducing UK’s imports can contribute to cut both its footprints, generating less emissions abroad and more employment opportunities within. However, cutting imports is challenging, since this would require a lengthy and difficult process of structural transformation. The UK could contribute to curb emissions outside its borders, while safeguarding development overseas, by offering increased support to emission-intensive trade partners in the form of technology transfer and financial aid.

Read the full paper at:

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