Greenpeace report sparks plastic export concerns

Concerns over plastic exports have been raised following a report by Greenpeace, which showed plastic waste shipped from the UK to Turkey illegally dumped and burned.

Released this morning (17 May) the report, called ‘Trashed’, detailed findings from a Greenpeace UK investigation in March 2021. It uncovered “new evidence on what is happening to British plastic waste sent to Turkey”.

The report highlighted how some plastic exports to Turkey have been found illegally dumped and burnt (click to open report)

At 10 sites dotted around the outskirts of Adana, Southern Turkey, investigators documented “piles of plastic waste dumped illegally in fields, near rivers, on train tracks and by the roadside. In many cases, the plastic was on fire or had been burned”.

Greenpeace said plastic from the UK was evident at all these sites. It included packaging and plastic bags from high street retailers such as Tesco, Asda, the Co-op, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Marks & Spencer, as well as Lucozade and Fanta bottles and a car number plate.

In response to the report, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it is introducing legislation to help combat plastic pollution. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said it highlights the urgent need to fix the UK’s recycling infrastructure, while the Environmental Services Association (ESA) urged the public not to be discouraged to recycle.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, called for the introduction of plastic film collections to be brought forward.

‘Urgent action’

Outlining what the NGO wants introduced, a spokesperson from Greenpeace called on the UK government to take “urgent action to tackle this plastic crisis”.

They said: “It can start by banning exports to other countries, including to members of the OECD, to end the dumping of plastic waste that passes for recycling. Some new recycling infrastructure may also be needed so the UK can deal with its own plastic waste.

“Most importantly, the UK needs to drastically cut the amount of plastic produced in the first place. Reducing single-use plastic by 50% would not only allow the UK to end waste exports, but would also mean less plastic going into incineration and landfill. The government must mandate a 50% reduction in single-use plastic by 2025 – and supermarkets and major brands must deliver it.”

Illegal

The Environment Agency says it monitors the export of waste from England using a risk-based intelligence led approach and strongly advises waste exporters to contact the Turkish authorities prior to export to ensure their import restrictions are being adhered to.

The Agency says there are a “small number of businesses that intentionally break the rules”, and it targets them through intelligence-led compliance and enforcement activity, such as suspending accredited packaging waste exporters or prosecutions.

While Turkey has not signed up to the Basel Convention, it introduced stricter import restrictions for plastic waste earlier this year (see letsrecycle.com story).

Among other things, these restrictions stated that material which has been shredded or mechanically treated would not be allowed in.

However, Greenpeace said much of the waste it found had been shredded. It said many bags had been ripped open, seemingly deliberately, allowing the plastic to escape. In some cases, layers of plastic waste had been “covered in soil before more plastic waste was dumped on top, creating artificial hills several feet high”.

‘Robust action’

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “Some specific sorted wastes are allowed to be exported to licensed sites in Turkey, but unsorted or misdescribed waste shipments are illegal.

“Where we identify any waste that is misdescribed, we take robust action”

Environment Agency

“Where we identify any waste that is misdescribed, we take robust action including stopping the waste and returning it to the source, and we may take formal action in line with our Enforcement and Sanctions Policy where appropriate.”

Domestic processing

A Defra spokesperson said the UK was a “global leader” in tackling plastic pollution. They added upcoming legislation would help to tackle the issue further.

They said: “We are clear that the UK should handle more of its waste at home, and that’s why we are committed to banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and clamping down on illegal waste exports through tougher controls.

“The UK is a global leader in tackling plastic pollution, and we will be announcing further details on our proposals for a deposit return scheme for drinks containers and extended producer responsibility for packaging which together will hugely increase recycling rates and reduce waste.”

Defra added that the government was “very concerned” about the illegal trade in waste, and had pledged to ban the export of polluting plastic waste to non-OECD countries and to introduce tougher controls on waste exports, including mandatory electronic waste tracking. Defra says this will make it harder for criminals to obtain and export waste illegally.

‘Committed’

Jacob Hayler, executive director of the ESA, said the association and its members were absolutely committed to ensuring that all material exported from the UK for recycling was put to its intended use, and that reports of UK material being dumped abroad or mismanaged “remain deeply disappointing”.

Jacob Hayler
Jacob Hayler is executive director of the ESA

Mr Hayler said: “In 2020, ESA members publicly committed to abide by the ESA’s new Standard for Responsible Export – which was welcomed by Defra – in an effort to ensure that all material exported by our members for recycling is handled and treated responsibly. For the most part, materials exported abroad are put to their intended use, but the minority of incidents where that is not the case cause unacceptable environmental and social harm.

“In the longer term our sector needs deeper government support to stimulate and increase the capacity of domestic recycling and reprocessing; to drive poorer quality plastics and packaging formats off the market; and to more effectively police and scrutinise remaining export activity. This will largely be achieved by an effective, long-term, plastics tax to underpin domestic investment; extended producer responsibility policies to eradicate difficult-to-recycle or poor quality packaging formats from sale; and reform of the current regulations for export brokers and dealers to increase scrutiny and accountability.

“It is essential that people continue to recycle all they can and that the public is not discouraged”

Jacob Hayler, ESA

“With the right policy framework, the ESA’s members are ready to invest up to an estimated ten billion pounds over the next decade in the UK’s recycling infrastructure but, until the UK is able to make use of all its own recyclable material, responsible export activity will remain an essential component of the UK’s waste management system. In the meantime, it is essential that people continue to recycle all they can and that the public is not discouraged from playing their important role to help the UK transition towards a more circular economy.”

Retail

Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the BRC, said retailers were “shocked” by the reports. He added it was “incredibly frustrating” some waste handlers in the supply chain were not acting responsibly.

He said: “Retailers take their responsibility to tackle plastic pollution seriously and are investing millions in reducing plastic waste. It is therefore incredibly frustrating to discover some waste handlers in the supply chain are not acting responsibly, and it highlights the urgent need to fix the UK’s recycling infrastructure and regulate those handling the country’s waste.”

Compliance

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, stated that while the overwhelming majority of waste exports are compliant, some are not, which is a “concern” for the industry.

Dr Simon Ellin is chief executive  of the Recycling Association

He said: “We have made a number of representations on this. Turkey introduced their own restrictions on waste imports earlier this year, yet data from the NPWD highlights that exports to Turkey have gone up, and continue to do so. It’s been obvious to us that some have continued to export banned material. We appealed to the Environment Agency to look at this, and we understand they are.

“Looking at the pictures in the report, it appears these are materials arising after sorting has taken place, with things such as builders bags. I also feel Turkey needs to take some of the responsibility. Why are customs authorities not picking this up? It begs the question over why Turkey have not signed up to the Basel Convention.

“There is talk in the consultations of not including plastic film in consistent collections until 2026/27. This is a huge problem as this is where the vast majority of these issues lie. There is resistance in industry to this delayed roll-out, but it’s critically important that paper is separated from this, or the issue will simply be passed on.”

Related links
Greenpeace ‘Trashed’ report

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