Why Britain needs a new approach for plastic waste
Image credit: Sentinel 2, Ben Heubl
With more avenues closing for UK plastic waste exports, tracking may not only get tougher but also more important. Monitoring British plastic pollution in poorer countries abroad remains essential to account for responsibility. New technical approaches help make the case for cutting Britain's single-use plastic by 50 per cent in 2025.
On a per-capita basis, Brits rank second in using the most plastic, just behind Americans, according to a study published in Science Advances last year. What does the UK do with all the plastic waste? Much of it is exported, with a seemingly clean conscience by the government, critics say.
Anything that can't be recycled or adequately incinerated shouldn't be exported in the first place. British plastic waste that isn't recycled often lands in foreign landfills and the ocean, affecting humans and animals at sea and land.
If plastic exported waste is incinerated, it's often burned in the open in poorer countries, affecting the health of those living nearby.
In recent years, the amount of plastic waste generated and exported from wealthy Western nations like the US and the UK to coastal environments has spiralled. This means British plastic ends up in the ocean.
Every so often, there are seismic shifts in how Britain treats its plastic waste problem. We have just witnessed two major ones in quick succession. The UK government was harshly criticised for sending British plastic waste to poorer countries. Facing tougher restrictions in south-east Asia, UK exporters reverted to sending more to Turkey, a OECD member. In 2020, Turkey was Britain's most important export destinations (39 per cent), followed by Malaysia (12 per cent), Poland (7 per cent) and the Netherlands (7 per cent).
The next shift for Britain came when Turkey imposed stricter waste-import laws at the beginning of the year. Some of the British waste arrived illegally, breaching Turkey's new rules. Britain doubled down. In February UK export figures to Turkey suddenly jumped to 30.4 million kilograms per month from 14m in January, according to UK trade data.
Then there was the damming Greenpeace report on Britain's latest waste export frenzy to the country, published last week. Shortly after, Turkey responded by banning plastic waste imports for good, in a similar fashion as China did in 2018.
Simon Ellin from the UK Recycling Association tells me that it wasn't a surprise that Turkey has now taken further actions. Part of it might have been the mounting critical reports surfacing over the past three years, pointing out how Turks and their waste sector suffered under British waste.
Then, earlier this year, via new restrictions, Turkey further limited the types of material that Britain could export. It changed the waste codes it accepted, to one that only includes non-mechanically treated materials, Ellin says. “In theory, this should have improved the quality but I don't think it worked and countries, including the UK, continued to export material under the old code. Substandard materials [kept] arriving”. The legal breach triggered Turkey to shut down imports completely.
Part of Britain's fault was poor monitoring. "The Environment Agency is so badly under-resourced that they don't have enough inspectors to monitor what goes out. Neither does Turkey," Ellin says. “Turkey has not been looking closely enough at the material that's been arriving.”
Turkey takes some blame in other ways. It's the only country that has not adopted amendments to the Basel Convention, one insider says. "This is strange. If Turkey really wants to control things [plastic waste, that comes in], that would be the first step, to adopt this amendment," said Jim Puckett, executive director at the Basel Action Network, US-based waste tracking NGO.
The Greenpeace report appears instrumental to Turkey's new ban. We took a closer look at it. Greenpeace visited ten sites around the city of Adana in March. It's not an exhaustive list but they offer a glimpse into the kind of sites where British waste is dumped. Ellin thinks Greenpeace's images showed waste that is 'outthrows', signalling to him that Turkey's illegal operators don't have a proper waste-management system in place to handle it.
Historical satellite data for some of the sites showed their development accelerated, particularly last year. It coincides with a huge jump in plastic waste sent to Turkey - plastic waste shipped to Turkey in 2020 surged by 36 per cent compared with 2019.
At the same time, many south-east Asian economies started to impose import bans and limitations, with more expected this year.
Satellite imagery for a waste site near Kuyumcular, Seyhan, a village in the district of Seyhan, in Adana, shows it expanding last year. By the end of 2020, a small hill of ash-black waste piles emerges. British recycling waste was found. In one image by Greenpeace, a landfill fire is still burning. The health-related consequences for the nearby population could be severe. Villagers only live less than half a kilometre west of the site.
Another site east of Adana city, which was merely an agricultural field five years ago, developed since 2017 into a 13,000 square metre waste dump. Incinerating plastic waste illegally or without dedicated incineration plants affects those inhaling the toxic air. In 2019, journalists found British waste in an illegal plant near Penang, a Malaysian state, in the nearby town Sungai Petani, in Kedah. Greenpeace documented a 30 per cent rise in people affected by respiratory disease within the city.
Britain's new plastic waste dilemma
With Malaysia and Vietnam increasingly curbing waste imports, Poland sending illegal waste back to the UK, and now Turkey's ban, Britain faces a new waste dilemma. The changes could exacerbate illegal British waste exports, too. Either way, Turkey’s ban is a big major wake-up call for the government, Ellin thinks.
What few options has the UK, now? Ellin says it's probably now a matter for domestic energy incineration, "at least in the short run". In the medium term, Britain's best option is radically cutting down plastic waste. Greenpeace demands a complete ban on all plastic waste exports by no later than 2025. Also, by 2025, the UK government should use the Environment Bill to set legally binding targets to reduce single-use plastic by 50 per cent by 2025 and introduce mandatory corporate reporting on plastic reduction.
Ellin says these targets sound fair and feasible. We should get fairly close to what Greenpeace is advocating for but more importantly, it will shape the government's focus, he says.
Tracking the UK's plastic waste across borders, all the way from disposal to foreign landfills (or recycling or incineration plants), remains tough. It's complicated because the British government officially doesn’t recognise the country's waste ends up in any foreign landfills. Unless plastic waste is being recycled or incinerated in an energy-from-waste plant aboard, it's even deemed illegal for export. Greenpeace critiqued this, saying that Britain "optimistically counts all exported plastic waste as recycled".
To improve tracking of plastic waste, researchers and advocacy groups increasingly turn to modern technology. The Seattle based NGO Basel Action Network (BAN), a hazardous material exports watchdog, deploys their EarthEye Tracking Service which includes sturdy GPS trackers, to follow plastic waste around. This year, it wants to track plastic waste exports across borders. In 2019, CBC News, a Canadian broadcaster, used those covert GPS trackers for a plastic waste investigation.
A viable link to ocean plastic in the region
Plastic from landfills ashore blown or transferred into the ocean remains a huge problem, partly because it's so hard to track. Few dared to established viable links to exporting countries like the UK. Puckett at BAN says that he keeps hearing that coastal sites, or those near rivers flowing into a marine environment, receiving foreign waste, are not an issue. However, "common sense suggests it's certainly a contributing factor to marine pollution".
Greenpeace tells us that it found evidence of dumped plastic sliding down banks into waterways that lead to the coast in Turkey. "It is most likely that plastic is carried to the coastline from the canals, rivers and streams in Adana and is then blown to the lagoon, beach and Mediterranean Sea".
Satellite images tell another concerning tale of the Adana province. Remote sensing technology can spot flowing plastic in water bodies.
A paper by researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, published by Nature found last year it's feasible to detect floating aggregations of plastic on sub-pixel scales at an accuracy rate of 86 per cent. The researchers used open source Sentinel 2 images which I used to apply around and near the coast of the Adana province where Greenpeace visited. My findings show a worrying degree of ocean plastic in the waterways and near the coast (floating plastic in yellow).
While the UK government is scrambling to find its feet, Greenpeace welcomes Turkey's change of heart. “It is excellent news that the Turkish government has finally responded to years of calls from local campaigners,” says Sam Chetan-Welsh, a campaigner at Greenpeace UK. But the underlying problem remains. “We need a complete ban on all plastic waste exports and legislation to make UK companies reduce the amount of plastic they produce in the first place,” he demands.
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