Agriplastic on the side of a country lane

UK farmers using legal loophole to burn toxic plastic

Image credit: Agriplastic. SnapTPhotography |

Farmers in the UK are illegally burning and dumping thousands of tonnes of toxic agricultural plastic every year, according to a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

It is estimated that UK farms produce 135,500 tonnes of contaminated ‘agriplastic’ waste each year, but according to the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, only 20-30 per cent is reprocessed into new products.

The rest is disposed of - including through illegal burning, burying and dumping - or is exported, which often involves illegal disposal, according to the EIA, an NGO that investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse.

The EIA's latest investigation, published today, reveals that UK farmers are continuing to burn these plastics in-situ, despite the practice being banned in England and Wales in 2006 and in Scotland since 2019.

Lauren Weir, the report's author and EIA senior campaigner, said the illegal activity was due to the high costs of agriplastic waste collection and recycling. She also argued that the UK’s environment regulator, the Environment Agency (EA) does not have sufficient capacity to monitor the disposal of agriplastic.

Weir said that regulatory loopholes make it is easy for the illegal activity to go undetected. Farmers do not have to report the volume of agricultural plastic that any one farm has. They can therefore declare to have disposed of a minimal quantity of agricultural plastics and then simply mismanage the rest, including setting fire to it.

“This is a significant problem for our environment and health, as the burning of agriplastics, especially PVC, releases incredibly toxic chemicals,” said Weir.

The EIA says waste criminals are also illegally misdeclaring agriplastic as plastic packaging in order to export it. They can then claim back money from producers of packaging as part of the UK’s packaging extended producer responsibility scheme.

The EIA identified one Bournemouth-based company – Orange Recycling Ltd – which had its accreditation as an exporter of plastic packaging waste cancelled by the EA in 2020 after it was found to have misdeclared silage wrap as plastic packaging waste. Despite this, the company still managed to retain its licence as a waste carrier and broker.

The problem has also been offshored. The dumping of agriplastic waste has been well documented in Spain, one of the largest suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables to UK supermarkets, notes the EIA.

Weir added: “Current regulatory and voluntary initiatives to ensure the collection, reprocessing and recycling of agriplastic waste have done little to prevent mismanagement and criminality across the UK’s grocery retailer supply chain. Much more needs to be done.

“It is of the utmost urgency that regulatory loopholes are closed, that those placing agriplastics on the market either directly or indirectly also pay for the true cost of agriplastic use and environmentally sound end-of-life treatment costs.

“Crucially, given the struggle to achieve true and non-toxic circularity for this waste stream, resources must be provided to identify viable and safe alternatives that can be adopted by the agricultural sector.”

A spokesperson for the EA said it was “taking robust action to minimise waste and farmers are encouraged to dispose of all refuse, including agriplastics, responsibly”.

They added: “We continue to work alongside farmers and food producers to reduce plastic waste and use resources efficiently across our farms. This includes farm assurance schemes and educational resources, so farmers receive consistent messages on how to reduce, reuse and then recycle agriplastics”.

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