Campaigners say the city of Adana in southeastern Turkey has become 'a hotspot' for illegally dumped waste (Photograph: Yasin Akgul/AFP) Campaigners say the city of Adana in southeastern Turkey has become 'a hotspot' for illegally dumped waste (Photograph: Yasin Akgul/AFP)

How Turkey could spark a recycling crisis in the UK

Restrictions imposed by Turkey on plastic waste should reduce illegal dumping and increase recycling there but it leaves the UK recycling industry with vanishingly few export options. Conor McGlone reports

Salih Kanbak, import and export sales manager at the Turkish waste recycling firm Metroplast, said firms like his are now “desperate for plastic scrap”. The comments may seem surprising given that last year Turkey was the top destination for UK plastic waste.

However, earlier this month it emerged that stringent restrictions imposed by Turkey on plastic waste imports were leading to “widespread confusion” in the waste sector and fears of stockpiling of poor quality mixed plastics in the UK. 

The announcement is reminiscent of December 2017 when China closed its doors to waste imports. At the time, it was the UK’s top destination for plastic scrap and there were concerns the ban could lead to increased landfilling and incineration within the UK, but the then environment secretary Michael Gove assured the industry that countries like Vietnam, India and Turkey would take up the slack. 

They did, at least in the short term, but many south-east Asian countries have since introduced their own restrictions and the UK has become heavily reliant on Turkey.

MAPPED: The UK's plastic waste exports

READ MORE: Plastic waste exports: Someone else’s problem?

Analysis by Greenpeace, published in February, revealed that 39% of all the UK's plastic exports went to Turkey in 2020 and until this year, exporters had been ramping up shipments of plastic to the country, with the NGO revealing an “enormous” 36% increase in waste shipped there in 2020 compared with the previous year.

According to the Environment Agency’s (EA) own figures, in 2020, 212,381 tonnes, or 31% of plastic packaging waste, was reported as being exported by UK accredited exporters to Turkey, out of a total of 688,244 tonnes globally for UK accredited packaging exporters. 

Implications for the UK waste industry are therefore likely to be significant.

Estimates vary, but Kanbak said as much as 60% of UK exports to Turkey could be stopped.

Kanbak acknowledges that Turkey’s latest ban - which targets low grade plastics - will help to protect Turkey’s environment as it will only allow the import of sorted grades.

He said in the past “some illegitimate recyclers in Turkey were importing poor landfill grade waste and then trying to sell it to cement factories for energy production”. 

“When the cement factories refused it, the waste was dumped in hidden fields,” he said.

Dumping in Turkey is well documented. A report aired by the BBC in 2020 showed UK plastic waste exported for recycling being burned on Turksih roadsides.

“With this regulation, the inspection at customs have been maximized, and only well sorted plastics are allowed to be imported,” added Kanbak.

Despite this, Kanbak describes it as “a loss” that certain “really good mixed grades in the UK will also no longer be allowed to be imported”.

Phil Conran, director of consultancy 360 Environmental, said: “The Turkish ministry had applied blunt tools to try and shut out the really poor quality material and by doing so, they have excluded a lot of good material that we haven’t got the capacity to process and the Turkish recyclers not just want, but need.”

Kanbak said an even greater impact will come from Turkey’s introduction of rules last October that mean the country as a whole will only be allowed to accept up to 50% of its reported recycling capacity as imports. The Turkish authorities hope this will increase the collection of recyclable material on its own shores. However, according to Kanbak, this leaves a capacity gap, with recyclable material in Turkey only able to meet 15-20% of the industry’s demands there.

Kanbak said Turkish importers are therefore “desperate” for plastic scrap from the UK and that they were trying to negotiate with the Turkish government to find a way for “increasing this 50% plastic scrap allowance”.

Sedat Gundogdu, an expert on sea waste and microplastics at Turkey's Cukurova University, said the price of plastic scrap is skyrocketing due to a limited supply of virgin plastics.

“The Turkish government has a plan to make zero plastic imports but the industry pressure is really high,” he said. 

He said this had led to a raw material crisis and an increase in lobbying.

According to Gundogdu, officials for the Ministry of the Environment, responsible for making policy decisions on the import of plastics, were visiting places like the city of Adana, which is one of the hotspots for illegal dumping. 

He said they would visit selected facilities and “the recycling industry would aim to show things going ‘perfectly’". 

“However, the main problem is in the backyard and there is no plan to visit the backyard,” said Gundogdu.

An EA spokesperson said that “when restrictions, such as those seen in Turkey, are imposed, businesses will seek alternative outlets for their waste either overseas or within the UK”.

But destinations for UK recyclables are drying up and the UK does not currently have the capacity to recycle its own plastic.

A proposed ban on the export of waste to non-OECD countries and stricter export controls introduced through amendments to the Basel convention also threatens to reduce the available routes for the UK’s plastic recycling.

This has led to fears of plastic waste stockpiling in the UK, with one recycler telling ENDS a government intervention was needed.

The EA said that if businesses “are struggling to find outlets and think there is a risk that waste will stockpile beyond allowable levels then they should discuss the issue with their local EA team”.

However, the EA would not be drawn on whether this waste might be landfilled or incinerated or whether or not the UK government had learned lessons from China’s import ban three years ago.

Meanwhile, the regulator “strongly advises” UK waste exporters “to contact the Turkish authorities prior to export to ensure their import restrictions are being adhered to”.

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