Crushed plastic bottles

A wasted opportunity? Plastic waste exports targeted by UK, but further action needed

It shouldn’t be a rubbish day – but it could be.

Today (30 January), the UK Government introduced its new Environment Bill, which includes powers to end the export of polluting plastic waste to some of the world’s poorest countries.

The aim is to reduce environmental damage and help developing countries which simply do not have the ability or capacity to properly deal with plastic waste.

The ban is on the UK’s exports of plastic trash to countries that do not belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – developing countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and others in the region which have become plastic waste dumping grounds. The OECD, sometimes described as a ‘rich nations club,’ is made up of 36 countries with market economies which help each other to stimulate economic progress and trade.

Until recently, China imported most of the world’s plastic waste but has now halted the trade, which is why other countries in the region have stepped in.

A ban on our exports to non-OECD countries, even if not comprehensive, would still be a step beyond what is required by a recent amendment to the Basel Convention. This convention is the international legislation governing trade in hazardous wastes – which will require prior informed consent for hard-to-recycle plastic waste exports, starting in 2021.

But there is a problem – the UK exports only about 38 per cent of its plastic rubbish to those countries, so what happens to the rest of it? Well, it has to be taken by countries which are our partners in the OECD, such as Chile, Mexico and Turkey – and some of them have serious issues when it comes to dealing with plastic waste.

In particular, the UK currently sends large volumes of plastic waste to Turkey, despite the country having limited infrastructure and capacity to handle such imports in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.

Plastic waste in a UK warehouse

Plastic waste for recycling in the UK

According to the latest figures, Turkey imported 106,471 tonnes between January to September 2019, which was 26 per cent of all plastic scrap sent abroad; in 2017, it was only five per cent.

This loophole needs to be closed by the UK Government to ensure all plastic waste is effectively and responsibly recycled. The UK’s commitment to ban waste exports to non-OECD countries is a positive development and will hopefully inspire other nations to adopt similar provisions.

Juliet Phillips, Ocean Campaigner, said: “Waste exports are an environmental injustice which cause health hazards, polluting water supplies and food chains in recipient developing nations.

“Current volumes of exports are a symptom of wealthy countries’ unsustainable consumption of single-use materials – no recycling system in the world could deal with the mountains of single-use packaging used and thrown away every day.

“We welcome today’s commitment by the UK Government to stop treating countries outside the OECD as a dumping ground. However, it’s no secret that OECD members such as Turkey have limited recycling capacity.

“The UK will need to enact strong provisions to guarantee that plastic is being effectively recycled in an environmentally and socially sound way.

“We urge the Government to go further to address the plastic crisis at root, challenging our throwaway culture and focusing on reduction and reuse measure to transition to a truly circular economy.”