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Empire of waste: calls grow for a ban on plastic exports

Image credit: green peace

An E&T investigation shows how a flawed plastic export system is exploited by criminals, leading to UK plastic being dumped and burned illegally in poorer countries. What can the UK do to recover its reputation and end what green groups have dubbed ‘waste colonialism’?

Last year, scrap metal recycler Wojciech Topkin’s attempt to move into the plastic export business didn’t go well. It was just “too risky”, and he was “forced to give up”, he tells E&T.

The problem for Topkin, whose company JPM Futures has been recycling scrap metal for 15 years, was that as a plastic exporter, he must prove that materials originate in the UK before he can ship them for recycling. However, he is not convinced all plastic waste provided by his local suppliers originated in the UK. “A rubbish company in Uxbridge showed me a mixture of different types of waste,” he recalls. “If you have 200 bags pressed together, how am I supposed to split them and search for evidence that the bags are not from France or China? It’s hard for smaller companies – it’s too much hassle and risk because if something goes wrong, I am responsible for the load to be transferred across Europe.”

While some legitimate firms like Topkin’s may be put off by the shady nature of the plastic export sector, many less scrupulous firms are taking full advantage of a system which has been described as “seriously flawed” and “open to abuse”.

The Environment Agency (EA) cancelled accreditations of eight plastic exporters last year for offences including “knowingly or recklessly supplying false information” and mislabelling material, in an apparent bid to skirt national import restrictions. The environmental regulator also suspended permits of 11 plastic exporters in 2021.

Greenpeace UK says the cancellation and suspension notices, obtained by E&T through freedom of information rules, “are yet more evidence that the plastic waste export system is simply not fit for purpose”. It has renewed its calls for a ban on the export of all plastic waste, but can the UK ever process all its own waste? And how long will this take?

Under producer responsibility regulations, firms that export plastic packaging for recycling issue Packaging Export Recovery Notes (PERNs) to prove it has been properly processed. They can then sell these notes to packaging producers, who are obliged to offset the waste they create.

In 2018, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the system is open to abuse. It also warned that recovery notes may reward shipping waste overseas rather than processing it at home, as exported waste is treated as if the entire tonnage was recycled. Domestic recyclers – who can issue Packaging Waste Recovery Notes (PRNs) – only get credit for what comes out after material is cleaned, filtered, melted, and reformed.

Cancellation notices issued against exporters last year would appear to back up the NAO’s findings, thus raising questions about what happens to the UK’s plastic waste when sent abroad for recycling.

Accoil Paper Recycling Ltd, for example, which had its accreditation as an exporter cancelled on 13 April 2021, failed to prove the plastic it was exporting had been recycled into a non-waste product. The EA said a recycling site in Poland where Accoil Paper claimed to have sent the material had actually been abandoned in 2021 and was no longer operational.

Accoil Paper was placed into voluntary liquidation by its director Stephen Oliphant in May 2021, shortly after the EA cancelled its export permit, with the firm owing creditors more than £2.7m.

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Image credit: green peace

Two other exporters, Wai Sang (Europe) Recycle Limited and DTS Trading Limited, had their accreditations cancelled for “knowingly or recklessly supplying false information to the EA”.

The EA said paperwork supplied by Wai Sang was false and “not the official versions” on an undisclosed number of different bills of lading between February and April 2021. DTS, it said, had supplied false plastic receipt inspection forms on several loads of waste.

Firms can export plastic waste to countries in the OECD including Turkey under the Green list category, meaning they don’t have to pre-notify the EA about where it’s going. However, they must complete the Annex VII document, which confirms it will be handled at its destination in an environmentally sound way.

Turkey is the UK’s largest importer of plastic waste. Greenpeace Mediterranean estimates that 80 per cent of plastic waste illegally dumped and burned in Turkey could be from the UK. Turkish officials banned importing waste coded as 19 12 04 (plastic waste polymer mixtures or any plastic which has been produced as a result of mechanical treatment) in January 2021.

Last month, E&T revealed the recycling firm Eurokey, which has contracts to recycle plastic waste of two major supermarkets, had its export accreditation suspended last year after mislabelling the type of plastic it exported to Turkey. In the suspension notice, the EA said: “Waste codes must not be interchanged to circumvent national import restrictions” and that Eurokey had “inappropriately issued” PERNS.

Suez, one of the UK’s largest waste companies, also had its export accreditation suspended last year for failing to update the necessary documentation after a mid-year change in requirements, due to “an oversight”.

Lauren Weir, ocean campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, says it is important that plastic waste flows are “fully transparent and traceable” but there is no way of knowing how much plastic these companies are accused of shipping in breach of regulations, or the profit they made. The EA has either redacted or refused to disclose this information, citing commercial confidentiality.

The agency says it will not comment on any current or potential future cases and that it investigates instances of non-compliance on a case-by-case basis “before we determine the appropriate, reasonable and proportionate enforcement”. Yet this is unlikely to reassure green groups or the sector at large.

Speaking at a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee inquiry, Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) said there was “a low likelihood of being caught”. Furthermore, “the penalties are pitifully low, even when you do get caught.You might get a four-figure fine when you have a six- or seven-figure profit. It is ridiculous and completely out of balance.”

JPM Futures’ Topkin says it is “a very easy business” for criminals to import waste from France to the UK, re-export it and then falsely claim a PRN on material that did not come from the UK in the first place. Therefore, he cannot risk assuming the provenance of loads, he explains. “If somebody refuses to take the waste from me in Poland [for example], it will cost around €2,000 to €3,000 to return it to the UK. My suppliers in the UK won’t accept it back.”

E&T discovered several other scams, including miscoding of waste to circumvent restrictions and falsifying documents to obscure the destination of the material. The crimes aren’t just opportunistic, though. The breaches exposed by E&T suggest that firms – at least one of which is linked to organised crime – are exploiting a system with full knowledge of its weak points.

Phil Conran, director of waste consultancy 360 Environmental, says the system is “seriously flawed in that the EA audits tend to come later in the year and therefore do not pick up things until it’s too late. Often a lot of material will have been shipped that should never have had PRNs issued on it.”

This can go the other way, too. “Once an accreditation is cancelled, the exporter cannot access any tonnage left in the account and the EA gives no warning, so tonnage that might have been perfectly legitimate and where the exporter had purchased the material at a cost that included the value of the PRN, could lose a lot of money,” he adds.

Conran describes the system as “a blunt instrument”. He says it will come down to “whether an exporter gets audited and when, and not all exporters get audited”.

He wants to see a requirement for exporters to pre-notify the EA of exports – as is the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Conran also recommends earlier monitoring of exporters and a “fit and proper person” test for exporters, to weed out any who may be linked to organised crime.

The EA is currently consulting on a reform of the PRN system, with proposals that do seem to address some issues, including exporters and reprocessors being obliged to report monthly to the EA, rather than quarterly. It also proposes requiring exporters to submit Annex VII forms (the export documentation that accompanies green list waste) to the regulator before they can ship and, crucially, it is introducing a ‘technical competence’ test for exporters and reprocessors.

Eventually, Defra intends to replace the whole PRN system with an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system, which will be phased in from 2024. The scale is ambitious. The EPR system will cover the full cost of collecting, sorting and recycling plastic put on the market. Producers currently cover just 10 per cent through the PRN system, and they are expecting a bill of £1.7bn in the first year of EPR implementation. The government says EPR will “encourage more domestic reprocessing and fewer exports of poor quality and contaminated packaging for recycling”.

Yet there are concerns that the policy overhaul may have the opposite effect. Dr Tim Rotheray, director of ESG and external affairs at one of the UK’s largest waste firms, Viridor, told the EFRA committee: “The policy simply says the material will arrive on the market and the expectation is that the market deals with it. We expect this will drive increased export rather than building infrastructure. Our view is that there is comfortably an opportunity to invest about £500m in plastic reprocessing infrastructure across Great Britain, but to do that, we need to move away from this highly volatile PRN market, which is difficult to predict, otherwise we will see it export driven.”

ESA’s Hayler agrees. He suggests the government could adopt a UK recycling goal as part of the overall target. Hayler also calls for a requirement for evidence on what happens to waste once it has been exported “to demonstrate that it has been recycled properly”.

However, in its latest consultation response, the government said it would not, for now, require reprocessors and exporters to provide evidence of recycling back down the supply chain “as part of contractual arrangements”.

For Megan Randles, political campaigner at Greenpeace UK, the government’s proposals do not go far enough. “While taking steps to improve transparency and enforcement is key in the short term, it’s impossible to monitor this trade to the level of certainty needed to ensure exporters are dealing with waste properly. The only lasting solution is a ban on waste exports, and the government should be working to bring one forward as soon as possible,” she says.

It is not just green groups calling for a ban. In April, EA chief executive Sir James Bevan called for an end to all waste exports as soon as possible. He said a ban would remove “any scope for criminals to exploit the current system and send hazardous or misdescribed waste overseas, because there would simply be no explanation for any waste going through our ports”.

The government says it is committed to banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and will consult on this by the end of the year. But this does not go far enough. Campaigners, experts, and the industry agree that the ban should be extended to all countries, as the UK exports most of its plastic to Turkey – an OECD country that has well-documented cases of illegal burning and dumping.

The waste industry hopes a full ban will incentivise construction of recycling infrastructure in the UK, but it needs to be timed well. If a ban was introduced overnight, “a lot more plastic material would be sent to landfill and energy recovery, which would be a bad outcome”, says Viridor’s Rotheray, telling MPs the industry needs around five years before a ban is introduced “because it takes between one and two years to do planning and permitting for a new [recycling plant] and then it takes between two and three years to build and commission a new site”.

As well as EPR, the government is consulting on a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drink containers and making collection of household waste consistent across the country. It is hoped these policies will stimulate the market for recycled plastic and end the UK’s reliance on exports, but it is essential the government gets the details right. For example, E&T recently revealed concerns that the introduction of the plastic packaging tax could lead to an increase in exports to Europe.

“The status quo only benefits plastics producers and waste criminals, while the countries we dump our waste on are left to deal with the consequences of this waste colonialism,” says Greenpeace UK’s Randles.

The next few years will prove crucial if the government is to ditch the current situation and perhaps recover some of the UK’s tattered reputation as an empire of waste.

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