This article is an overview of findings from several articles in published in The Guardian over the last week.
As you may or may not have seen in the news this week, there is apparently some kind of recycling crisis happening in the UK. And by crisis, I mean that for some reason unbeknown to us, items just aren’t, well, getting recycled. Here’s the low-down…
Last week, it was revealed that the UK plastics recycling industry is under investigation for fraud and corruption, and in the last three months, six UK exporters have had their licenses suspended or cancelled. The Environment Agency is investigating a number of allegations, with exporters falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of non-existent plastic waste. On top of this, our waste is apparently not recycled at all, but being left to leak into rivers and oceans. Furthermore, illegal shipments of plastics are being routed to the Far East via the Netherlands.
The main issue here is that exporters are making millions through plastic/packaging export recovery notes (Perns – which currently cost £60 a tonne, and are generated every time a tonne of waste is recycled), which retailers and manufactures buy to show that they are doing something to tackle plastic packaging waste. As the system relies on companies making self declarations about the amount of packaging they’re exporting, it’s been heavily criticised as open to fraud and abuse by the National Audit Office.
Because the price is so high, many are being encouraged to pursue the export market, and enforcement is currently not strong enough to detect whether it is in fact worthless contaminated or mixed waste being shipped instead of plastic. As a result, huge discrepancies have also been found between the amount of packaging exports recorded by HM customs and the amount UK exports claim to have shipped.
According to The Guardian, “In the last few months the customs figures on waste plastic are lower than the figures given to the Environment Agency by the exporters – suggesting more people are shipping stuff they claim is waste plastic in order to get the Pern price.”
“Two-thirds of UK plastic packaging waste is exported, and the export industry was worth more than £50m in 2017.” – The Guardian
This investigation into corruption in the plastics industry has arisen as the UK looks to new international markets to deal with its plastic waste; in January, China stopped accepting British plastic waste, and our exports were instead sent to Malaysia, Vietnam and Poland. But Malaysia and Vietnam have imposed temporary bans on imports, while Poland is considering restrictions after fires at illegal waste dumps – a sign that countries are growing ever more wary amid evidence of high contamination rates.
As a result, exports to Turkey and the Netherlands are soaring; The Guardian predicts that Turkey is likely to overtake Poland and become the second-biggest receiver of UK plastic by the end of the month. However there are growing fears that this will cause the rising levels of UK waste in Turkey to simply leak into the oceans, be sent to landfill or even be burnt; a glance at Turkey’s record on recycling does not reassure environmental observers, as the country recycles just 1% of its domestic waste and sends the rest to landfill, according to OECD data from 2015. The coast of Turkey is said to be the most polluted in the whole of the Mediterranean.
As a result of China’s ban, major problems in the UK’s plastic recycling industry have arisen, and are costing local councils in England up to £500,000 extra a year; the continuing fallout from import bans imposed by those who refuse to take our waste is only set to make matters worse. Some councils are even considering stopping the collection of plastic bottles amid fears these will simply end up in the ocean as a result of being exported. And with cheap labour costs and less regulation overseas, a turnaround in UK recycling rates seems highly unlikely.
Ok – so what can we do about it?
We need to stop buying plastic entirely. Gone are the days where we are able to pop things so easily in the recycling bin feeling assured we are doing something good for the planet. If we truly want to help tackle plastic pollution, we need to be cutting off the supply at its source; as of today, a UK wide ban on single-use plastics is set to come into force in the next year – which is a great first step, but ideally needs to come in sooner. On top of this, there also needs to be a dramatic shift in the way we see items, not as disposable after a time, but as infinitely reusable and repairable – and definitely not merely recyclable.
On a side note, it’s estimated that local authorities spend around £700m annually on collecting and treating packaging waste, while the businesses producing the packaging contributed a mere £73m last year to reprocessing and recycling it – or €13 per tonne recycled. Perhaps it’s time we started holding more businesses to account for the waste they create…