The report from the Policy Connect think tank, sets out a series of proposals aimed at addressing the UK’s ‘reliance’ on overseas markets for plastic packaging and to improve the recyclability of plastic products.
According to the report, currently around two thirds of the plastic packaging waste collected for recycling in the UK every year is exported for processing. This has added up to a total of 4.15 million tonnes of plastic was exported from the UK for recycling between 2010 and 2017.
Although China has long been the largest market for plastic waste for recycling – it has in recent years slashed its demand for material from overseas. However, countries including Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia are still thought to handle significant volumes of plastic waste from the UK.
Policy Connect claims that by handling more packaging waste at home, the UK will end the export of ‘over four Wembley stadiums full each year to countries with lower recycling and environmental standards’ – which it claims has contributed to leakage of plastics into the environment.
Jonathan Shaw, chief executive of Policy Connect who is a former Labour Defra minister, said: “Britain’s used plastic export habit is costing our economy and the planet. We can no longer sweep our plastic rubbish problem under other countries’ carpets.
“British consumers want to recycle more but our lack of UK reprocessing plants and circular policies are letting them down. We need a bold national plastics plan that we can all be proud of to protect the marine environment, to kick-start infrastructure investment and jobs, and to boost UK demand for recycled plastics.”
Among the headline measures outlined within the policy document is a target of net zero exports of recyclable plastic packaging by 2030 at the latest, a measure intended to ensure that plastic from products sold and used in the UK does not end up in the oceans and water courses.
According to Policy Connect, in order to meet this aim investment will be needed to treble the UK’s recycling capacity to ensure that the material can be processed domestically.
This would be supported by the introduction of increasing statutory minimum levels for the producers to include recycled content in their products, and development of an ‘approved list’ of packaging materials and formats for use in product manufacturing, to aid recycling.
Additionally, the report suggests that the Treasury should set targets for the percentage of recycled content in new products at different levels for different packaging formats, depending on the availability of recycled material. These could be periodically revised as recycling improves, Policy Connect claims.
And, mirroring similar proposals in the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy the think tank has also called for an overhaul of the funding system for local authority waste collection systems, through an extended producer responsibility regime.
This would see councils offered funding conditional on them achieving recycling targets and implementing a collection consistency framework.
Proposals in the report have been supported by 12 parliamentarians from across the political spectrum – among them Lord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, and a former Environment Secretary.
“Exporting two thirds of the UK’s plastic waste overseas is bad for jobs, business and our environment. I welcome the call for the UK to commit to a bold target of zero exports of plastic packaging by 2030.”
Mary Creagh MP
Environmental Audit Committee
Commenting on the proposals, he said: “Britain is a proud, responsible, ‘can-do’ nation which looks to the future. We welcome the government’s forthcoming consultation on its ambitious Resources and Waste Strategy. The right policy roadmap can turn our plastic waste problem into an economic opportunity for the UK to lead the world in waste-processing, recycled plastic, and waste-to-energy innovation and jobs.”
Labour MP Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, has also expressed support for the report.
She said: “Exporting two thirds of the UK’s plastic waste overseas is bad for jobs, business and our environment. I welcome the call for the UK to commit to a bold target of zero exports of plastic packaging by 2030.
“Achieving this will require home-grown solutions such as implementing a Deposit Return Scheme by 2022 and applying a coffee cup levy as my Committee recommended. We can and must transition from exporting our plastic waste problem to growing our own solutions.”