Defra refutes Daily Mail ‘recycling con’ claims

8 April 2013

By Will Date

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has refuted claims by the Daily Mail that millions of tonnes of household waste from the UK is being landfilled overseas, describing the allegations as ‘myth’.

A front page story published by the newspaper on Saturday (April 6), headlined ‘The great recycling con trick’, alleged that most of the recyclable waste that is shipped to countries including China, India and Indonesia is rejected by reprocessors and is instead disposed of in landfill.

The Daily Mail claimed that much of the UK's waste exported overseas is sent to landfill in its front page story on Saturday April 6
The Daily Mail claimed that much of the UK's waste exported overseas is sent to landfill in its front page story on Saturday April 6

And, the newspaper claims that the large amount being disposed of overseas is a result of ‘compulsory recycling schemes’ set up in order to meet the requirements of the Waste Framework Directive, rather than lack of landfill space in the UK.

But, Defra  has branded the allegations ‘untrue’. The Department said: “The vast majority of the millions of tonnes of waste that is legally exported for recycling is dealt with properly and recycled into other products.

“It is absolutely illegal to export household waste from the UK for dumping. Anyone caught illegally exporting materials that are not properly sorted will be prosecuted. Only sorted materials such as metals, paper, card, glass or plastic that can be reused again can legally be exported.”


Defra added that it is currently working to update the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations, which set out the requirements for the enforcement of EU waste shipment regulations by UK agencies. This includes a consultation on plans to give border officials greater powers to stop suspected illegal waste shipments (see story).

The Defra statement, published in response to the story on Saturday, continued: “We are clamping down on people illegally exporting waste and giving enforcement agencies the necessary powers to combat illegal activity. Under international law, importing countries will also refuse entry to illegal shipments of waste.

“Trade in materials for recycling is a global market. We would like to see our own recycling industry grow so that we can grasp this opportunity with both hands to benefit our own economy.”

Meanwhile, recyclers have also rebutted the claims, adding that it would not make economic sense for companies to export waste overseas to be buried in landfill.


Dr Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said: “The export market for recovered materials is so heavily regulated, it is virtually impossible to export sub-standard materials – this is not just at the UK end of the market, but also at the final destination. China for example have recently put into place a “Green Fence” strategy where anything between 70 – 100% of containers are opened and inspected before they are allowed to be moved to the re-processing mills.

“The economics of exporting sub-standard materials simply does not stack up – who is going to risk sending out a container of landfill standard material for export when you are likely to be prosecuted or have your container sent back at costs of upwards of £5,000 per container? Which exporter is going to pay a UK supplier for recyclable material and then pay for it to be landfilled?”

Commenting on the story, Matthew Farrow, director of policy at the waste industry trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA), said: "The article blurs the distinction between illegal waste exports where material is deliberately mis-described and unfit for purpose, and legitimate export of recyclate which is valued by overseas reprocessors and is a natural part of the global recycling economy.  We all want to see illegal exports stopped, but articles like this confuse rather than enlighten the householder."


A spokesman for the Waste and Resources Action Prorgramme (WRAP), said: "The quality of collection schemes is clearly important if we are to extract maximum value from this waste, and we welcome the continued focus on driving up quality. This is why the Defra / Welsh Government Code of Practice which is currently out for consultation, the related Quality Action plan, and the work on the recyclate Quality Action Plan in Scotland are so important."

"Effective enforcement of export regulations is the other part of the equation and this is being dealt with by Defra, SEPA, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales."