UK exporting 67% of plastic waste amid ‘illegal practices’ warnings
Britain’s trade in waste plastic to the Far East is booming. But it’s not good news. The exported plastic is meant to be recycled under UK conditions and standards, but often is not, undermining bona fide UK recycling firms who face falling prices, reduced turnover, collapsing profits, and all too often, closure.
It makes no sense – either economic or environmental – to send used plastics out of the country. Collected properly, the recapture, re-use and recycling of these plastics would create jobs and lead to cleaner environments.
The UK exported more of its plastic packaging waste abroad for recycling in 2016 than in any of the three years previously, according to a new analysis by Energydesk.
The data comes as industry insiders warn that waste sent abroad may be incinerated or buried rather than being recycled.
More than two thirds (67%) of plastic packaging waste was exported for recycling in the first three quarters of 2016, up from 61% in the same period the year before and 60% in 2014.
Over 515,000 tonnes of plastic packaging was exported from the UK in the first three quarters of 2016, alone. Much of this was shipped to Asia.
In evidence to a recent government consultation industry experts warn ministers about the unknown fate of exports, which they claim are often exported “illegally for manual sorting in Asia, or being burned for energy recovery”.
The ‘new narcotics’
Others warn that plastic exports could be used as a front to smuggle out other, more hazardous waste.
Insiders are concerned that instead of good quality plastic for recycling, which would be labelled as ‘greenlist’, criminals could be exporting mixed and contaminated refuse labelled as plastic recycling, thus allowing them to avoid paying UK landfill taxes.
In September 2016 Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency called waste crime the “new narcotics”.
Between 2015 and 2016, the Environment Agency stopped 223 waste shipments, though it is not known how many of those purported to contain waste plastic. In the majority of cases the containers were sent back to refuse centres, but in 13 instances ‘enforcement action’ was taken.
Samantha Harding, Litter Programme Director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England told Energydesk:
“It makes no sense – either economic or environmental – to send used plastics out of the country. Collected properly, the recapture, re-use and recycling of these plastics would create jobs and lead to cleaner environments.”