Greenpeace calls for total ban on UK waste exports

A Greenpeace report published today (17 May) suggests waste exported from the UK is being illegally dumped in and burned across southern Turkey. Greenpeace is now calling on all waste exports from the UK to be banned.

Trashed features photos of grocery packaging in piles of burning and smoking plastic three thousand kilometres away from the shops where the products were sold.

At ten sites dotted around the Adana province in southwestern Turkey, Greenpeace investigators documented piles of plastic waste ‘dumped illegally by the roadside, in fields or spilling into waterways and floating downstream’.

In many cases the plastic was on fire or had been burned, according to the investigation. Plastic from the UK was evident at all of these sites, Greenpeace says.

It included packaging and plastic bags from seven of the top 10 supermarkets, Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, as well as other retailers such as B&Q, Debenhams, Poundland and Spar.

At least some of the plastic waste had been dumped recently, Greenpeace says. At one site, packaging for a COVID-19 antigen test was found amongst bags of UK plastic, indicating that the waste was less than a year old.

Recognisable brand names on packaging included Andrex, Canon, Coca Cola, Diet Coke, Fanta, Finish, Kinder, KP Nuts, Leffe, Lucozade, Pepsi Max, Tyrells, Walkers Quavers and Volvic.

The heart of the problem is overproduction – the UK is the second biggest user of plastic waste per person in the world, behind the US

The majority of the plastic found at the ten sites had been shredded and the plastic was often found spilling from large off-white bulk bags – similar bags were visible outside recycling factories throughout Adana, according to Greenpeace.

It said it found plastic waste spilling into waterways and floating downstream and that investigators found ‘British plastic’ found on the beach of the Mediterranean coast.

The release of Greenpeace’s Trashed report comes as new opinion polling by YouGov reveals that 86% of the UK public are concerned about the amount of plastic waste the UK produces.

Nihan Temiz Ataş, Biodiversity Projects Lead from Greenpeace Mediterranean, based in Turkey, said: “As this new evidence shows, plastic waste coming from the UK to Turkey is an environmental threat not an economic opportunity. Uncontrolled imports of plastic waste do nothing but increase the problems existing in Turkey’s own recycling system.

“Around 241 truckloads of plastic waste come to Turkey every day from across Europe and it overwhelms us. As far as we can see from the data and the field, we continue to be Europe’s largest plastic waste dump.”

Nina Schrank, senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “It is appalling to see plastic from UK supermarkets’ shelves ending up 3,000 kilometres away in burning piles on the side of Turkish roads. We must stop dumping our plastic waste on other countries.

“The heart of the problem is overproduction – the UK is the second biggest user of plastic waste per person in the world, behind the US.

“The government needs to take control of this problem. They can start by banning plastic waste exports and reducing single-use plastic by 50% by 2025. This would not only allow the UK to end waste exports but would also mean less plastic going into incineration and landfill.”

Waste exports

Greenpeace is calling on the UK Government to enact the Environment Bill, and use the powers within it to ‘ban all plastic waste exports’, not just to non-OECD members.

This should start with an immediate ban on all exports to non-OECD countries, like Malaysia, and mixed plastic waste to OECD countries, like Turkey, it says.

Greenpeace is calling for a complete ban on all plastic waste exports by 2025, and for the government to also set legally-binding targets to reduce single-use plastics by 50% by 2025.

The Environmental Services Association (ESA), the trade body representing the UK’s resource and waste management industry, said the reports from Greenpeace were ‘deeply disappointing’.

Executive Director of the ESA, Jacob Hayler, said: “The ESA and its members are absolutely committed to ensuring that all material exported from the UK for recycling is put to its intended use, and reports of UK material being dumped abroad or mismanaged remain deeply disappointing.

For the most part, materials exported abroad are put to their intended use, but the minority of incidents where that is not the case cause unacceptable environmental and social harm – ESA

“In 2020, ESA members publicly committed to abide by the ESA’s new Standard for Responsible Export – which was welcomed by Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] – in an effort to ensure that all material exported by our members for recycling is handled and treated responsibly.

“For the most part, materials exported abroad are put to their intended use, but the minority of incidents where that is not the case cause unacceptable environmental and social harm.”

Mr Hayler said that the resources sector needs ‘deeper government support’ to stimulate and increase the capacity of domestic recycling and reprocessing; to drive poorer quality plastics and packaging formats off the market; and to more effectively police and scrutinise remaining export activity.

He said: “This will largely be achieved by an effective, long-term, plastics tax to underpin domestic investment; extended producer responsibility policies to eradicate difficult-to-recycle or poor quality packaging formats from sale; and reform of the current regulations for export brokers and dealers to increase scrutiny and accountability.

“With the right policy framework, the ESA’s members are ready to invest up to an estimated ten billion pounds over the next decade in the UK’s recycling infrastructure but, until the UK is able to make use of all its own recyclable material, responsible export activity will remain an essential component of the UK’s waste management system.

In the meantime, Mr Hayler said that it is ‘essential’ people continue to ‘recycle all they can’ and that the “public is not discouraged from playing their important role to help the UK transition towards a more circular economy”.

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