Two-thirds of plastic waste separated for recycling in the UK was sent abroad for processingin 2018. Photograph: Mint Images/Getty Images Two-thirds of plastic waste separated for recycling in the UK was sent abroad for processingin 2018. Photograph: Mint Images/Getty Images

Why calls for a plastic waste export ban have divided industry

Calls for a ban on plastic exports from one of the UK’s largest waste firms have both public and political support. But many in the waste sector still believe that exports are necessary, finds Conor McGlone

Waste giant Biffa last month published a report calling for a ban on the export of waste plastics as part of a drive for all plastics to be recycled within the UK. 

The call is a bold one, given that exports are big business. Two-thirds of plastic waste separated for recycling in the UK was sent abroad for processing last year. 

But Biffa argues that retaining the material as a resource would generate domestic investment and jobs and avoid “unintended environmental problems in other countries”. 

Since China closed its doors on plastic waste in January 2018, the UK has been finding alternative markets for its recyclable waste. Malaysia has taken up a lot of the slack, having imported 105,000 tonnes of the UK’s plastic last year. But in the summer of 2018, a National Audit Office report warned that millions of tonnes of plastic sent abroad for recycling may be being sent to landfill rather than being processed.

In addition, images of British waste ending up in illegal Malaysian dumps have driven increasing public awareness of the problem and pressure on waste firms. 

Biffa’s argument also has political backing. In February, a group of cross-party MPs called for a complete ban on the export of the UK’s plastic waste to developing countries, and n September, prime minister Boris Johnson hinted that a new bill “on the export of waste overseas, on plastics” could be on the cards.

Just this week, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a briefing claiming that keeping recycling within the EU could also provide a net benefit for the European economy, through jobs and added value, and for the environment.

READ MORE: Infographic: focus on plastic waste exports

Biffa’s report is unequivocal. It states that the UK must stop exporting waste plastics. “Global markets cannot always be relied on to deliver the environmental standard...we can and should, aim to recycle all plastics within the UK,” it says.

However, Biffa’s views are not shared across the waste industry. 

While Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ Recycling & Recovery UK, said his firm wanted the same “system revolution” as Biffa, “which enables us to invest in more UK infrastructure”, he said the issue was not “black and white” and that “you can’t go from zero to hero in the blink of an eye”.

Read pointed out that “the processing demand is not in the UK’s hands”. 

He said: “If markets in the EU do not want to make products with the material, but they do in South East Asia - we cannot control that.” And while Read accepts that it would be ideal to phase out exports to developing countries, he maintains that “we don’t want to be turning our backs on some of the very solid markets in the EU”.

The UK will never be an “island where we treat and put plastics back into the marketplace without it ever leaving our shores", he said.

However, Read conceded that forthcoming measures such as PRN reform could make it harder to send “low grade stuff” abroad and that the move to extended producer responsibility (EPR), would also mean more UK reprocessing and fewer exports, “which is good too”.

Richard Kirkman, chief technology and innovation officer at Veolia, also said EPR and the planned tax  on single-use plastics would be important in generating change.

READ MORE: How will the government's plans to overhaul the waste sector affect industry?

Kirkman’s comments align with Biffa’s view that single-use plastics and difficult to recycle plastic composites, such as black plastic food trays and compostable plastics, “have to go”. 

But Kirkman agrees with Read that the continuing exports of single plastic grades to European outlets “makes sense whilst we complete the building of the UK infrastructure”.

This could take some time. Currently there are just a handful of plastics recycling factories in the UK. A 2014 Circular Economy Task Force report found that the UK could support 45 plastics recycling factories, with the right incentives and collection methods in place, increasing the domestic recycling plastics from 9% a year to 70%. 

However, EPR and the plastic tax will not be implemented for at least another two years and firms like Suez are already choosing to invest heavily in EfW plants over recycling plants. 

According to Kirkman, “there is nothing wrong with exports per se, what is wrong is mixed plastic being exported where some may get dumped, which is already not allowed...this is about enforcement of existing laws, not new laws”.

The waste sector trade body, the Environmental Services Association’s (ESA), also says the export of plastic is still necessary, although it too points out that UK recyclers should not be exporting mixed material in need of further sorting outside of the OECD countries.

Jacob Hayler, ESA’s executive director, said: “The last thing both the industry and consumers want, is for the UK to contribute towards the shocking images we’ve seen in the past of waste plastic and other materials being irresponsibly managed overseas and leaking into the wider environment - damaging wildlife both on land and in our oceans.” 

But according to Hayler, “stricter rules for material exports would only be effective if they were policed properly by the regulators, and UK authorities would need to take appropriate enforcement action to ensure that only legitimate material was exported as recycling. 

“It would also be useful to have clear, objective, guidance from the Environment Agency on product standards.” 

DEFRA declined to comment.

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