The UK exports more than two and a half Olympic swimming pools of plastic waste every day, according to Greenpeace analysis of the UK’s trade figures for the end of 2020.
Greenpeace says there have been ‘enormous increases’ in the volume sent for recycling in Turkey and Malaysia – two countries where British waste has been found piled up in illegal dump sites or burnt.
Greenpeace UK political campaigner Sam Chetan-Welsh said: “The plastic we carefully wash and sort for recycling is being shipped off to other countries where much of it ends up illegally dumped or burned, poisoning local people and polluting oceans and rivers.
We need a complete ban on all plastic waste exports and legislation to make UK companies reduce the amount of plastic they produce in the first place
“The government could put a stop to this but so far Boris Johnson is only offering half measures. We need a complete ban on all plastic waste exports and legislation to make UK companies reduce the amount of plastic they produce in the first place.”
The report follows the UK government’s announcement that the Environment Bill would be postponed due to the pandemic and earlier criticism that UK government has not immediately followed suit of the EU in banning plastic exports to developing nations.
- In 2020 the UK exported 537,000 tonnes of plastic waste – roughly the same amount as in 2019 (539,000 tonnes).
- The top three countries for UK waste exports are Turkey (39%), Malaysia (12%) and Poland (7%). All three countries have very low recycling rates and a serious problem with plastic waste being dumped or burned illegally.
- The volume of plastic waste shipped to Turkey increased by 36% compared with 2019. The volume exported to Malaysia increased by 63%.
- Half of the UK’s mixed plastic waste – which is almost impossible to recycle – went to Turkey.
Plastic waste can only be exported from the UK if it is going to another country to be recycled. However, Greenpeace says that many of the countries that British waste is being exported to do not have ‘adequate recycling facilities’, and British plastic waste has been found dumped or burnt in ‘illegal rubbish dumps’ all over the world.
It says thousands of tonnes of illegal plastic waste exports have now been sent back to the UK by China, Malaysia, Poland, Sri Lanka and other countries.
In its 2019 manifesto, the government said it would ban plastic waste exports to countries that are not members of the OECD. However, as it stands, 21% of the UK’s waste exports are to non-OECD countries, Greenpeace says.
79% of UK waste goes to countries that are in the OECD, such as Turkey, and would not be affected by the proposed ban. Greenpeace is calling on the government to ban ‘all plastic waste exports’.
Turkey, which receives 39% of the UK’s plastic waste and 50% of its unrecyclable mixed plastic waste, is of ‘particular concern’, Greenpeace says.
In July 2020 the BBC filmed British waste dumped by the side of the road near the Turkish city of Adana. A recent study by WWF found that 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste was ‘open dumped’ in Turkey every year and an estimated 110,000 tonnes of plastic waste enters the Mediterranean from Turkey every year.
Over two-thirds of plastic waste is packaging. Despite high-profile commitments to reduce plastic packaging, the retail sector has made little progress. In 2019 the ten biggest supermarkets in the UK produced 896,853 tonnes of plastic packaging – almost exactly the same amount as the year before.