Pile of sorted plastic waste

Waste industry joins call for global ban on plastic exports

Image credit: Zlikovec/Dreamstime

Waste industry leaders have joined with environmental campaigners to call for a ban on the export of plastic waste that goes further than the government’s current proposals.

Representatives from the UK waste industry this week told a cross-party group of MPs that any ban should be global – and not just cover non-OECD countries as proposed by Defra.

Speaking in front of the environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) committee on Tuesday, Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) said the vast majority of plastic waste is currently exported from the UK under the Green list category. This means firms do not have to pre-notify the Environment Agency (EA) about where they are exporting waste; “this makes it very challenging for them to be able to regulate that appropriately”, he said.

Hayler said there was also a lack of transparency about where some of the plastic waste was ending up. “While there are requirements that the material should then be recycled to an equivalent standard to the UK, it is very difficult to check,” he said.

Hayler noted that the EA inspected between 5 and 6 per cent of total waste container exports in the final three months of 2021. Of these just 1 per cent of containers sent for export were stopped. Hayler said that of the 48 containers of plastics stopped, 18 were destined for Turkey.

Speaking to the EFRA committee from Istanbul, Nihan Temiz Ataş, biodiversity project lead at Greenpeace Mediterranean, said recent investigations carried out in Turkey suggested that 80 per cent of the plastic waste illegally dumped and burned in Turkey could be from the UK.

Despite stricter restrictions placed on imports by Turkish authorities, Ataş noted that British firms were still sending plastic waste to Turkey and in some cases mislabelling waste to circumvent the restrictions. “I have to underline that we cannot solve this crisis with strict regulations; we need to ban exports,” she said.

Last month, E&T revealed that a British waste firm that has contracts to recycle the plastic waste of two major supermarkets had its export accreditation suspended last year after mislabelling the type of plastic it exported to Turkey.

In total, the UK currently exports 60 per cent of its packaging that is collected for recycling.

Dr Tim Rotheray, director of ESG and external affairs at Viridor, said that ending plastic waste exports was key to enabling investment in domestic recycling infrastructure in the UK.

The company this month opened a polymer reprocessing facility at Avonmouth, near Bristol, with capacity to handle 80,000 tonnes per year, which it claims will cut UK exports by around 8 per cent.

The government is expected to launch a consultation this year on banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries. 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.

Rotheray said “a total ban on the routine export of plastic waste” was therefore needed but that to avoid an increase in landfilling and incineration in the UK, a five-year lead in time was needed.  

Hayler said the Environmental Services Association supported phasing out the export of all mixed plastics. “I think it’s more important to focus on the type of material and what you’re doing to the material before it’s exported rather than the geographic location. So that could be not just a non-OECD country, that could be anywhere,” he said.

Greenpeace is calling for a total ban on all plastic exports by 2025.

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