Where Does our Plastic Waste Go?
Since China’s ban on foreign waste imports, the UK has had to rethink their waste strategy plan
Photo by Thomas Haeusler (Flickr)
by Claudia Santos Gonçalves
Until quite recently the UK could still rely on China to dispose of our unwanted plastic packaging, but since China’s ban on “foreign garbage” introduced a year ago, British politicians have been scratching their heads over the UK’s rubbish. Thankfully for Britons, recycling is a rather profitable business and China’s former competitors gladly took the opportunity, a deliverance for those who were dreading the sudden emergence of plastic mountains within the British landscape. In effect, in the 12 months to October 2018, Malaysia imported a total of 105,000 tons of the UK’s plastic, that is, 68% more than in the previous year, followed by Turkey, importing 80,000 tons, and Poland. Though interestingly enough, Malaysia together with Indonesia, the fourth biggest importer of British plastic waste, happen to be amongst the top ten countries polluting the ocean with waste plastic. As a matter of fact, there is no guarantee that our exported waste destined to be recycled actually ends up being properly reprocessed, as quite often only a small fraction of it is of economic value, the remainder possibly being burned or discarded illegally. The UN estimated the worth of global illegal waste trade between £8bn-£9.5bn a year. Meanwhile, the Malaysian government has been working on stricter conditions on the import of plastic, urged by environmental organizations concerned about the country’s limited capacity to process all of the imported waste presumably leading to environmental damages. Nevertheless, the UK cannot perpetuate this out of sight, out of mind attitude in regard to this dirty matter. Although, figures provided by the Environment Agency show a decrease of 72,000 tons in exports between the two previous 12-month periods, there is no evidence for a positive change in public behavior. Additionally, incineration in the UK has increased and figures reveal that less than half of all household waste is recycled resulting in the burning of reusable plastic and paper as well. As a response, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) expressed their concern about the export of poor quality plastic some of which has been reported to be illegally exported to Asia through Holland. Furthermore, they emphasize the importance of ensuring our plastic goes to reliable recyclers, supporting a global accreditation system to efficiently manage the waste export sector. Still, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove claims that the UK must stop “off-shoring its dirt” and commit to inciting Britons to recycle more at home. However, a ban on waste plastic export will not happen in the near future as long as UK firms do not benefit from the necessary funding and this dirty business remains lucrative for importing countries. The government’s new waste strategy plan underlines the importance of recycling more, but with a pitiable increase of 0.3% of recycled household waste between 2016 and 2017, the UK seems far from being able to reach the 50% recycling target set by the EU for 2020. Now, to sort or not to sort, that is the question.