Let’s talk trash: Is the UK turning a blind eye to the plastics problem?

In the 2019 moratorium the UK Government pledged to restrict plastic trade to non-OECD countries. In the same year the British public was shocked by headlines that it was a source of the plastic problem piling up in Malaysia and Indonesia. Images of bales of plastic waste piled high on foreign warehouses flooded the internet. The UK claimed it was determined to do something about it. When China announced stricter protocols for accepting plastic waste it was welcomed as an opportunity to invest more in local recycling efforts, yet many question if enough action was taken on this. For all the public outrage and realisation that plastic is nowhere near reaching the recycling rates it could, it seems very little has changed.

UK Plastic Exports

Whilst there are many reputable plastic exporters, ensuring quality material is exported to legitimate reprocessors, we know there are many others who aren’t so great.  Greenpeace recently released a report highlighting that the UK’s plastic exports did not decline in volume from 2019 to 2020. Yes there was the pandemic disrupting lives and increasing the amount of medical waste, but what happened to the promises to reduce plastic use and increase recycling in the UK? The December 2020 Greenpeace report reveals some shocking plastic waste statistics.

  • Exports to Malaysia increased by 63%
  • Exports to Turkey increased by 36%
  • Almost 40% of the UK’s mixed plastic waste (which is almost impossible to recycle) was sent to Turkey

Whilst Greenpeace isn’t the only source of data for recycling, and they do have a propensity for headlines, they are highlighting a wider issue which we do need to address.  Turkey and Malaysia, despite accepting plastic waste, do not have the necessary infrastructure to process all the material we are sending. The good stuff is easy to recycle, it’s the mixed dross which too often slips thought the net which causes the problem. The result is piles of plastic get dumped on open air illegal dumpsites, or gets burnt. Not exactly the outcome that the average member of the public envisages when they discard their plastic waste in recycling bins.

Now Turkey has announced that it’ll be following China’s example, tightening up on which plastic it will accept for recycling. What impact will this have on UK plastic exports and recycling? Will another lesser known dumping site be found abroad, or will the public and private sector do something to curb the amount of plastic waste generated and exported?  Will all this material simply end up in UK landfills?  Will there be a spate of fires throughout the UK?

Is a total plastic export ban the solution?

Activist are calling on the UK government to implement a complete ban on plastic exports, claiming there are too many loopholes in current legislation and too few incentives to reduce the amount of plastic being produced in the first place. But will this achieve the intended outcomes? Will it force manufacturers to implement better circular economy strategies? Will the public step up in their recycling and reuse efforts? And will it generate investment for more local recycling operations?  Coventry City Council certainly think so.  Their state-of-the-art facility, with closed loop solutions for different streams of plastics, should shine a light on what is possible.

While optimistically we’d like to think that it would, history reflects a different reality. The international plastics trade has developed in part because of stricter local waste measures being implemented. Rather than send plastic to local landfill, it was cheaper to export it. Problem solved. Supposedly, if you think a tick box of getting the waste out of sight actually solves the problem.

Plastic trade exists because there’s an economy for it. In an ideal world where a circular economy is entrenched it would be a critical cog in the wheel supplying resources to manufacturers and recyclers. The problem is that we’re still very far away from that utopia. Despite efforts to recycle and reuse plastic already in the economy, the local UK industry cannot keep up. Too much new plastic and too many types of plastic are being produced, and not enough of it is being recycled in Great Britain. It is good that journalists highlight the findings of Greenpeace and bring up the debate of plastic exports. But before we get too comfortable finger pointing we need to take into consideration the complexity of the plastics problem.

Plastic Circular Economy ambitions

Many large manufacturers are making pledges towards the circular economy and a key element of this is agreeing to reduce the different types of plastics produced. Currently one of the biggest challenges for the recycling industry is dealing with mixed and contaminated plastics. Sorting and cleaning them to a point where they can be recycled effectively tips the economies of scale. It’s not worth doing. So perhaps the approach to creating a circular economy to address the plastic problem is to ask the question: What WILL make it worth it – for everyone involved?

To date the overarching approach has been to legislate, ban, fine or tax. Treating global companies like naughty children. But the thing about children is that usually they will find a way to avoid the worst of the punishment. They’ll negotiate, they’ll charm, and they may even get defensive and threaten retaliation of their own. Sound familiar? It’s a strategy too often played out in global economics with everyone looking after their own interests first. It’s business after all!

The plastics problem is a global environmental problem. It’s a collective problem that cannot be solved by shifting blame or responsibility. It needs everyday people to innovate and find solutions for seemingly impossible situations, at a local level.  And most often these solutions are found through collective effort. Collaboration is a start. Finding ways to incentivise the reduction in plastic production and increase recycling and reuse needs to be built on a viable economic strategy if global industry buy in is to be achieved.

If, as often accused, global manufacturers care more about profits than the planet, the only thing that’ll get their attention is making the case why the circular economy is worth it. It’s a big ask, and won’t be achieved overnight. What contribution can you make to achieve these aims?