The UK Ships Most of Its Waste Overseas: Why Is This a Problem for People and the Planet?

Painstakingly sorting your household recycling or taking a trip to a specialised recycling facility has become the norm in homes across the UK. Recycling has become embedded within the national psyche. Yet most of our recycling waste is not disposed of in the UK – it is sent overseas.

The European Union is the biggest exporter of plastic waste, with the US leading as the top exporter globally. The UK is a significant contributor to the world’s plastic crisis, creating more plastic waste per person than any other country except the United States of America. 

Currently, the UK does not have the necessary infrastructure to recycle its plastic waste. Plastic production is increasing as the population expands and demand for goods grows, despite the societal understanding of the damage it can cause to the environment also building.

A solution to tackle this plastic waste crisis is to send recyclable waste overseas. Not only is it cheaper than investing in infrastructure domestically, but it also helps to meet national and international recycling targets whilst reducing domestic landfill requirements.  

Recyclables are sent overseas under the consensus that they will be recycled and transformed into new products. It is illegal to export plastic waste from the UK unless it is to be recycled or incinerated in an energy-from-waste plant, and the government optimistically counts all exported plastic waste as recycled. However, independent investigations by the media and environmental organisations reveal significant problems in the countries the UK exports most of its plastic waste.

For the recipient countries, importing recyclable waste can establish a valuable source of income. Recently though, the volume of waste has been growing exponentially, and the infrastructure within these countries cannot cope with the amounts they are receiving. The Guardian reported that more than half of the plastic rubbish the UK government says is being recycled is sent overseas, often to countries like Turkey, without the necessary infrastructure to deal with it in an environmentally sustainable way.

Independent investigations have been launched into facilities in recipient countries like Turkey and Malaysia and have uncovered the dark reality for both people and the planet.

Frequently, materials that cannot be recycled end up being burned illegally and dumped in landfills or waterways, causing risks to the environment and public health. For example, contaminated plastic waste cannot be recycled and frequently gets sent to illegal processing centres where it is burnt and contributes to air pollution.

Dumping and burning plastic waste poses a significant threat to human health. Communities living near dump sites in Malaysia and other countries believe that plastic pollution and burning plastic are responsible for heightened cases of respiratory issues such as coughing and difficulty breathing, headaches and itchy, irritated eyes, and they are concerned that exposure to these toxic fumes may be causing problems with menstruation or higher rates of cancer.

It is unclear how long the UK will be able to rely on exporting its plastic waste. Numerous governments around the world have begun implementing restrictions on the type and volume of plastic waste they are prepared to take in. Historically, the UK’s recycling has been sent to China. Chinese dominance in manufacturing meant that it was the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials for years.

But in 2017, the Chinese government declared that it intended to prohibit the importation of 24 types of waste by the end of the year, including polyethene terephthalate (PET) drinks bottles, other plastic bottles and containers, and all mixed paper in a motion against foreign garbage. These radical restrictions resulted in traders looking for other countries to take in recycling waste.

China’s decision to ban most plastic waste imports in 2017 is still the toughest stand against foreign waste imports. Still, other countries, including India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam, have also moved to protect themselves from imported plastic waste and the dark reality it holds for its citizens and environment. Even though the UK’s waste exports fell slightly in 2018 – the first year of the Chinese government’s plastic import ban. 2019 saw the largest volume of waste exports ever recorded.

Reforms to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal have also further restricted the plastic waste trade, and the new UN Plastics Treaty will go a long way to reduce the amount of plastic produced worldwide. 

Alarmingly, customs data indicates that UK companies have responded to the growing number of waste import bans by exporting more of our plastic waste to Turkey. This is inundating the country’s recycling system and fuelling waste crime – with severe consequences for local people and the environment.

In only five years, Turkey has gone from being a small player in the global waste trade to, in effect, becoming the new China. Exports of plastic waste from the UK to Turkey increased by a factor of 18 between 2016 and 2020, from 12,000 tonnes in 2016 to 210,000 tonnes in 2020, when Turkey received almost 40% of the UK’s plastic waste exports. Almost half of this was mixed plastic, which is notoriously challenging to recycle.

UK waste is overwhelming other countries’ recycling systems and is causing immeasurable harm to their local communities and surrounding environment. We send around two-thirds of our recycling overseas: the BBC estimated that 611,000 tonnes of plastic packaging had been sent away in 2018.

Sending illegal and hazardous waste to other countries has been coined ‘waste colonialism’. And it continues to present disastrous environmental, economic, and moral issues. People are suffering as a result – it’s thought that up to one million people are dying annually from illnesses caused by living near plastic pollution.

The UK’s recycling system is already overwhelmed by plastic waste. Without immediate government action to end plastic waste exports and reduce the volume of plastic produced in the UK, our plastic will continue to saturate other countries’ recycling systems, causing even more severe harm to their citizens and the environment.

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