Last month, Greenpeace published its shocking Trashed report, which claimed that less than 10% of the UK’s household plastic packaging is recycled in the UK. One of the principal reasons for this low figure was the amount of plastic that is exported to other countries.
According to Greenpeace’s research, 688,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste were exported in 2020, compared to the 486,000 tonnes that were recycled within the UK. Out of this, 39% was exported to Turkey, where Greenpeace investigators found evidence of British waste being dumped or burned at illegal rubbish dumps.
The amount of plastic waste exported to Turkey has increased significantly since China banned most plastic waste imports in 2017, rising from 12,000 tonnes in 2016 to 209,642 tonnes in 2020. Yet, it is estimated that Turkey only recovers about 12% of its waste materials.
In the wake of the Greenpeace report, the Turkish government has announced a similar ban to China, which prohibits the import of most types of plastic, including the polyethylene plastic that was used in 94% of the UK’s waste exported to Turkey.
This ban and the Greenpeace report have seen pressure rise on the British government to address the growing volume of plastic waste exports from the UK. Greenpeace has suggested that the upcoming environment bill, which includes provisions to prevent exports to developing countries, should be extended to ban all exports of plastic by 2025.
Whilst a ban on this scale would reduce the offloading of waste on other countries, we believe it is more important to ensure that countries and reprocessors pass quality assurance tests to ensure that they are able to treat waste appropriately.
At Casepak, we monitor the ‘journey’ of all the materials that are processed at our facilities, compiling monthly reports for our partners to show them where their waste has been sent. We also only work with reputable firms with a track record of responsibly reprocessing recyclables to avoid our materials ending up at illegal rubbish dumps like the ones that Greenpeace have found.
In addition to greater quality assurance testing, we also support Greenpeace’s suggestion that the UK should improve its recycling infrastructure. These developments would allow more waste material to be recycled and repurposed without the need to export it, thus increasing the UK’s circular economy.
Yet, as the Greenpeace report states, increased infrastructure needs to be complemented with a reduction in single-use plastic, which we and other reprocessors are unable to recycle at our MRFs. The government has already made strides towards this with bans on plastic straws and cotton buds, while supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Aldi have committed to reducing their single-use plastics by 50% by 2025.
These steps show some of the attempts to reduce the UK’s plastic pollution and tackle the climate emergency, but they fall short of writing meaningful change into legislation.
If the country is serious about ‘lead[ing] the world in tackling plastics pollution’, as Boris Johnson claims, then more must still be done in monitoring waste exports, investing in UK recycling infrastructure and reducing single-use plastic. With improvements in each of these three areas, the UK can increase its recycling efficiency and prevent its plastic waste being dumped or burnt abroad.