UK supermarkets entangled in the murky world of plastic waste
Image credit: MartinBergsma | Dreamstime
Revelations that a waste exporter contracted by Tesco and Sainsbury’s breached UK export regulations when it shipped waste to five sites in Turkey, as well as to Poland and the Netherlands, have prompted fierce criticism from green groups that are calling for greater transparency and stronger penalties for waste firms that break the rules.
A British waste firm that has contracts to recycle the plastic waste of two major supermarkets last year mislabelled the type of plastic it exported to Turkey, avoiding national restrictions, it has emerged, leading to questions about where the UK’s plastic ends up.
E&T can reveal that Eurokey Recycling - which has contracts with both Tesco and Sainsbury’s - had its accreditation as an exporter of packaging waste suspended in November 2021 by the Environment Agency (EA), following several breaches of regulations in the way it exported plastic waste to sites not only in Turkey but also in Poland and the Netherlands.
Greenpeace said the news was “extremely concerning” and called on the UK government to “urgently ban all plastic waste exports and stop our plastic mess being dumped on other countries”.
Both Tesco and Sainsbury’s have said they are aware of the breaches and that they are in close contact with Eurokey. Eurokey says the suspension was the result of a series of administrative oversights.
Turkey became one of the UK’s largest importers of plastic waste after China’s implementation in 2018 of a ban that left countries such as the UK – the world’s second-largest producer of plastic waste per capita - scrambling for new destinations.
By 2020, annual shipments of plastic waste from the UK to Turkey had reached 209,642 tonnes - about a third of total UK exports and equivalent to 108 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) shipping containers per day.
That year, a BBC investigation found that instead of being recycled, plastic waste was being dumped and burned on roadsides, prompting Turkish officials to ban the import of mixed polymers and mechanically processed plastics in January 2021.
Tighter restrictions that would have effectively stopped the import of any plastic waste into the country were introduced in May 2021, only to be significantly watered down days later. UK exports to Turkey have since risen rapidly, reaching 4,000 tonnes in November 2021, having dwindled to just 800 tonnes in August.
According to trade data from the HMRC, by November of that year Turkey had become the joint third-largest importer of UK plastic waste after Poland and the Netherlands.
Maja Darlington, a campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said British companies were mislabeling the type of plastic they were shipping "to get around restrictions" and that end destinations "are sometimes shrouded in mystery". She added: "What is clear is that UK plastic is still being sent to Turkey where it's dumped and burned, with serious environmental and social consequences for local people. Measures to clean up the industry aren't working.”
Nihan Temiz Ataş, biodiversity project lead for Greenpeace Mediterranean, said Turkey could not control the flood of plastic from the EU and the UK and that without a full ban the country risked becoming “Europe’s backyard plastic garbage dump”.
She added that the UK had “not been held accountable for illegal exports” and that almost a quarter of all the waste Turkey imported in 2021 had come from the UK.
The UK government is expected to launch a consultation this year on banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries - a promise set out in the Conservative Party manifesto ahead of the 2019 general election. However, last year 79 per cent of UK waste was shipped to countries that are in the OECD, including Turkey, meaning the vast majority of exports would not be affected by the proposals.
Wildlife and Countryside Link, an umbrella group that represents 63 UK environmental organisations, is calling for a ban on all plastic exports. In a paper it submitted to the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee last year, it said the UK can only fulfil its obligations by phasing out all plastic waste exports, starting immediately with a ban to non-OECD countries followed by a phase-out of all plastic waste exports.
Eurokey’s suspension notice, which was obtained under freedom of information legislation, shows that between January and March last year, the firm mislabelled and exported banned mechanically treated plastic to Turkey under the guise of non-hazardous plastic packaging waste, which is still permitted.
In the suspension notice, the EA said: “Waste codes must not be interchanged to circumvent national import restrictions” and that accordingly, Eurokey had “inappropriately issued” export packaging recovery notes (PERNS), which are supposed to prove that packaging material has been properly recycled.
Under current producer responsibility regulations, Eurokey sells these notes to producers who are obliged to offset the waste they create.
In 2018, the National Audit Office found that the current system is open to abuse and fraud. The government is currently consulting on an overhaul of the regime.
In its submission to the EFRA committee, Wildlife and Countryside Link said the proposed reforms, known as Extended Producer Responsibility, “must include a requirement to evidence the fate of waste at end destinations.” It added: “This shift in the burden of proof from the point of export to what’s actually happening at the other end is an imperative.”
According to the suspension notice, Eurokey sent plastic waste to four other sites in Turkey that did not have the appropriate permits in place. This was a breach of the Producer Responsibility Obligations Regulations as well as the Waste Shipment Regulations, the EA said.
It is unclear exactly how many tonnes of waste Eurokey exported last year in breach of the regulations, as the EA withheld these details citing commercial confidentiality laws. However, the company, which had a turnover of £52m in 2020 and made a profit of almost £3.5m after tax in 2020, has signed major contracts with UK supermarkets in recent years.
In November 2021, Tesco announced Eurokey would collect and process 2,000 tonnes of retail-ready packaging trays, which it would sort and export for reprocessing in the Netherlands.
Eurokey’s suspension notice shows that just two months before signing this contract it had made incorrect claims over the plastic waste it sent to a plant in the Netherlands, which was an interim site and not the final reprocessing facility as stipulated by the regulations.
Tesco said it took its commitment to the environment “extremely seriously” and had spoken to Eurokey “as soon as we became aware of this matter to remind them that we expect the highest standards of compliance with regulators.”
Sainsbury’s also said that it had been in close contact with Eurokey and that it expected all its suppliers “to meet our ethical and sustainable sourcing standards.” A spokesperson for the retailer said it had been assured by Eurokey that none of its waste had been sent to Turkey.
Eurokey is working with both companies on a controversial initiative to reprocess customers’ hard-to-recycle flexible plastic packaging, which includes items such as soft plastic films and crisp packets. The UK does not currently have the capacity to recycle this type of plastic, so customers are encouraged to take their flexible plastic waste back to supermarkets. Eurokey then collects this waste and ships it to a plant in Poland, where it is sorted before being sent for reprocessing elsewhere.
Sainsbury’s announced in June last year that after a successful trial it would roll out the initiative to 520 of its stores. Tesco also rolled out the scheme across all its big stores in summer 2021. Several other supermarkets, including Aldi and Co-op, have also launched similar initiatives.
Concerns remain about exactly where the plastic goes and whether it is all being recycled.
According to its suspension notice, Eurokey incorrectly claimed PERNs on the plastic sent to its site in Poland because it was not the final reprocessing plant. The EA said the plastic waste was sent to different final reprocessing sites across Europe and these sites were “not notified to nor approved by the agency.”
Asked where the material went after sorting at Eurokey’s site in Poland, the regulator said it did not hold this information.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said the lack of transparency over the export of plastic film waste, coupled with the EA’s lack of monitoring capability, rendered the practice “incredibly problematic”.
Lauren Weir, ocean campaigner at the EIA, told E&T: “Offshoring hard-to-recycle plastic waste only serves to shift the burden of responsibility to other countries and perpetuates business-as-usual. Supermarkets should instead focus on plastic reduction, the scaling of reusable alternatives and seek transparency so progress can be correctly accounted for.”
Eurokey said its permit suspension, which lasted for just six days, was the result of “administrative oversights which were swiftly corrected” and that it was looking to appeal the decision.
A spokesperson for the company said: “Our PERNs were claimed based on an approved recovery rate and to facilities that were approved by the EA. In the meantime, our 2022 accreditation has been approved without any delays or issue.”
The EA said Eurokey had complied with the requirements of the Notice of Suspension of its 2021 accreditation. This involved removing the falsely claimed tonnages on the national waste-packaging database, which would have meant a loss of earnings on this material.
The EA said Eurokey had taken steps to guard against future non-compliance, but Eurokey said there had been no significant changes in its processes between 2021 and its 2022 accreditation, which has been approved by the EA.
The agency added that depending on the circumstances of the non-compliance it might “initially work with an operator to try to bring them back into a compliant position before escalating our enforcement response.”
The regulator said its approach would depend on a number of considerations such as the regulators code and its enforcement and sanctions policy and “may vary on a case-by-case basis depending on these.”
However, Greenpeace’s Maja Darlington said there is currently no deterrent to breaking the rules, because penalties are insufficient: “In the murky world of plastic waste, export companies shrug off penalties as just a cost of doing business.”
This article was updated on February 10 to clarify that Eurokey’s accreditation as an exporter of packaging waste was suspended and that this was due to an “administrative oversight”
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