Published yesterday (5 October), the article, written by the i’s science writer, Tom Chivers, told the public that if they put plastic in their recycling bin, “there’s a decent chance it will end up in the seas off east Asia.”
Following the article’s publication, Mr Chivers doubled-down, telling letsrecycle.com he would be “thrilled to be wrong about this”, but “I don’t think it looks great”.
CIWM, the waste sector’s trade body, said that the statement was “fundamentally incorrect” and that it contradicted statistics published by the campaign group Basel Action Network (BAN) in 2021.
BAN data “clearly shows” that only 2.8% of UK plastics were exported to Asia in 2021, CIWM says, while export to India and the Philippines “either doesn’t exist or are so small as to not register in their data set”.
The i used a photo of a river in Manila clogged with plastic waste alongside Mr Chivers’ article. Most of this waste would not have come from a UK source, CIWM claims. “It is most likely to have originated in the Philippines itself, a developing country with insufficient or ineffective waste management systems in place,” the trade body said.
‘Mistrust and misinformation’
In a statement, CIWM said: “As the leading professional body for the resource and waste management sector, CIWM recognises that recycling can be a complex issue, but sowing mistrust and misinformation amongst the general public with inaccurate articles on the issue of recycling ultimately makes the waste sector’s job much tougher.”
CIWM advised householders to check with their local authorities about which materials they collected for recycling and to follow their advice to avoid contamination.
Responding to CIWM on Twitter, Mr Chivers said he was still “reasonably confident” about the “basic point”.
Something that sounds like a super-spicy hot take but actually I don’t think it is: recycling plastic is at the moment not a very good idea, and putting it in landfill guarantees it won’t end up in the South China Sea https://t.co/Yo0ltfeKBn
— Tom Chivers (@TomChivers) October 4, 2022
“CIWM point me to the ‘Basel Action Network’ statistics which suggest that since 2018 the amount of plastic waste going to South-East Asia has dropped enormously,” he said.
“That’s great, if true! But 1) lots of it still goes to Turkey and 2) lots of it still goes to the Netherlands, and a lot of the Netherlands’ waste ends up in the sea (often in SE Asia, I think).”
According to the most recent data published by BAN, the UK exported 37.3 million kg of plastic in July, with 88% shipped to OECD countries.
The data shows that, amongst the exports, 28% went to the Netherlands, 12% to Turkey, 4% to Indonesia and 19% to ‘other countries’.
BAN’s UK export data for 2021