Recycling and exporting waste, is there a more sustainable path forward?

Recent BBC documentaries have highlighted that not all is as it seems in the UK recycling industry. Tonnes of material clearly identified with UK brands were found dumped in a Malaysian jungle and everyone is asking how it got there. How is it possible that bags from Milton Keynes Council turn up in the Malaysian jungle?  What many members of the public aren’t aware of is that many of the items they put into the recycling bin aren’t recycled in the UK at all. Instead, they are shipped overseas to processing plants.  Much of the material was nicely baled.  Someone had processed this material.

At one time, the export of material to China was booming. Containers would arrive in the UK with manufactured goods and return empty. Why not fill them with recycling? It was a lucrative business for the UK exporters.  Until that is, China realized they were becoming the world’s dumping ground and decided they had enough pollution problems already, they weren’t going to take on the rest of the worlds too. So, they announced stringent new policies on what materials they would and would not accept. Which meant of course much of the material from the UK was rejected and the market for waste export to China effectively dried up overnight.

There is much speculation as to whether this is how British waste ended up dumped in a Malaysian jungle and many questions about what’s to be done about it. But what I want to ask is why are we exporting waste when we could be using it locally as an industry resource? The recent RtF conference highlighted specific issues surrounding the viability of plastic recycling, EPR and waste crime.  Key points the public needs to be aware of are:  is the plastic made from single stream recycled material and is it recyclable?  Will the market respond to Extended Producer Responsibility positively?  Can we restrict the amount of illegal shipments?

Scandanavia squabbles over rubbish

As we know, Norway, Finland and Sweden have highly efficient recycling programmes. There, recycling has become part of the culture.  Households diligently wash and sort packaging and food waste into different bags for collection, and recycling companies process each type for different purposes. In 2016 there was report that Norway was running out of waste to burn for its energy from waste plants. The country wasn’t generating enough waste and it was looking to import more. The energy from waste programme is used to generate heat and electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes. Very effective for countries with long, cold winters. that the export market to Scandinavia is well developed, as it’s more affordable for them to do that than pay landfill fees. But isn’t this a bit shortsighted? Isn’t there opportunity to create energy from waste plants in the UK to power local homes through our cold dark winters?  The RDF Industry Group report that exports from the UK dropped off about 16% from 2017-2018, but we still exported approximately 3.5M tonnes. 

Sustainability versus short term gain

With an infrastructure shortfall in the region of 15-17M tonnes, depending upon which source you read, the opportunities in the waste management and recycling sectors within the UK are massive. There are many examples around the globe of highly successful projects that create circular economies.  And one of the first steps in the process is looking at waste and waste management from a new perspective. It can no longer just be about waste disposal – we shouldn’t be throwing away waste, it’s a resource!


We should be designing recyclability into our products.  We should reduce the number of types of plastics being produced and used.  Plastics can be recycled, if they can be separated, and clean feedstock is key.  Those streams that can’t be recycled can be turned into diesel. Food waste can be completely eliminated.  Firstly, excess can be easily used in community kitchens, sent for animal feed, composted or used as fuel for bio-digesters, recovering the energy. That is just the start of the innovations and possibilities.

They key element to creating circular economies lies with people. Finding the right expertise to start making the changes industry needs. People with a vision and the skills to start changing processes and implementing new strategies that can send waste management in a new direction. Then perhaps we will see a new emergence of energy from waste facilities, more effective recycling and smarter packaging that goes beyond single use or is entirely compostable.

If your organisation needs change and you need the right expertise to make it happen, we can help you source the right people for the job. People whose competencies are thoroughly tested and who will be able to add immense value to your business. The team at WasteRecruit will be glad to assist you, call us on 01252 353 080 or email