UK Plastic Recycling
The Long Road
It is a satisfying feeling to separate out your wastes, in to the recycling boxes, and know they will go on to be reused, perhaps to make new milk bottles or yoghurt pots.
But believing that 100% of the plastic that is placed in a recycling bin actually gets recycled is a myth, and sometimes the truth is quite unpleasant.
Your yoghurt pot will have a long (and perhaps inhumane) journey before it is destroyed, buried or re-manufactured.
Environmental regulations are good, they stipulate that things should be done in such as way that the environment is not harmed . . . in theory. However, in the UK we have a massive loophole, in this regulatory force field, which is export.
Export = Easy
Exporting waste remains the easiest (in terms of regulatory effort) and cheapest (most profitable) way of "getting rid" of plastic waste in the UK.
Since January 2021 (leave EU) you need only apply to notify that you are exporting waste, filling out a few simple online forms, pay a fee (as little as £28 per notification) and you are good to go.
A "waste contractor" can register for a carriers license, and notify for export, and they are effectively operating as a legal recycling company.
To set up a "proper" recycling centre in the UK ((such as Axiom) we have no vested interest in this company)). It costs Millions of Pounds.
Not only to you have to put up buildings, washing plants, conveyor belts, picking lines, shredding and pelletizers, but it takes perhaps 1 or 2 years to get a planning permission and permit issued so you can begin to operate.
A "proper" recycling site is regulated, and enforced upon by the Environment Agency, or Natural Resources Wales, or the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. They charge a fee every years for this (1000's) of pounds and occasionally require that site are upgraded significantly (new buildings, water tanks, or fire sprinkler systems).
Energy from Waste
Similarly to set up an energy from waste plant, costs a great deal. These plants, which incinerate plastics at very high temperatures, and clean residue from smoke with complicated treatment systems, are expensive to run, and are required to monitor there emissions 24 hours a day 365 days a year.
They are also subject to all of the planning a permitting requirements as "proper" recycling facilities.
Easy Way Out
Profit before principals is often the way a business is run, after all if we did not care about profit, we would offer our ocean plastic gift service for free. But unfortunately some waste dealers will also abandon moral judgement in favour of profit. And so we see the relentless stream of waste plastics from the UK, to developing nations.
Not a subject to be taken lightly. Yet well know waste management companies, acting as contractors for county and district councils are regularly found to be employ slave labour in Britain.
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) – has carried out risk analysis of labour exploitation across the UK, and their research indicates that the recycling sector has been infiltrated by slavers and exploiters:
"Thousands of people being forced to work for little or no pay, often in appalling conditions and with the threat of violence hanging over them if they step out of line. Much of it is controlled by organised crime gangs who have links to drug smuggling, guns and violence. They know full well the enormous profits that can be made from using people as a commodity"
So when choosing where to send you waste, you have to be carefull. We choose the very shortest disposal chain possible, and we only incinerate in energy from waste plants. Then we know its gone for good.
Exporting Our Problems
The UK Exports 100,000s of tons plastic waste. Some of which goes to countries with very poor waste management practices.
300 Tons a Day
In 2018 China stopped receiving imported scrap plastic, exporters sites shifted to other countries such as Turkey and Malaysia and Thailand. As of 2020 the UK exports 300 tons of plastic a day to non-OECD countries. We export 500 tons a day in total (to all countries).
300 tons a day is around 7.5% of 4000 tons a day of waste plastic produced in UK on a daily basis, and exceeds the amount of plastic we recycle domestically, which according to 2020 figures from the EA stands at 450 tons a day.
Excluding direct release to the environment, this is the least favourable route for plastic wastes to take. Non-OECD countries are "developing countries which do not have the capacity to handle it [the waste] properly”.
Turkey vs Malaysia
Exports to Malaysia, now the UK’s the second biggest market for waste, have increased significantly in the first seven months of this year, with 33,098 tonnes of scrap sent to the country, a rise of 81% on the same period last year.
Transparency International's 2016 Corruption Perception Index ranks the country 75th place out of 176 countries, while the 2017 index saw Turkey fall back to 87th place. Turkey ranked 78th of the 180 countries surveyed as part of the 2018 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
The EU exported 11.4 Million Tons of Waste to Turkey in 2019, increasing by 200 times in just a short space of time. Out of that total is 153,967 tons of plastic waste from the UK, which is double the amount exported to Turkey in 2017.
Divergence from the EU
The EU has prohibited the export of the category of plastic waste known as Y48 to non-OECD countries. The UK, post Brexit has not followed this example, and we are still exporting waste to countries that do not handle the waste properly.
So as we continue through 2021 the UK is exporting massesses of Plastic Wastes to counties without the proper facilities to handle it. In some cases these countries are corrupt, and their record keeping of onward transfer are unlikely to be accurate.
Below we have collected numbers relating to recycling packaging waste. Publically available figures, do not match the reality of what is actually happening.
Publicised packaging recycling rate from UK government as of 2017.
Annually the UK produces 2.5 million tons of packaging plastic, each year.
As of 2020 we are recycling around 560,000 tons of plastic domestically per year this 22%.
As of 2020 we are exporting around 688,000 tons of plastic domestically this 26%.
Turkey (most common destination for recycling waste from UK) recycles just 10% of its plastic. That sounds terrible, but:
If we discount exports as "recycling" then the UK packaging recycling rate falls to approximately 22%.
Up to 78% of plastic packaging waste in the UK is not recycled.