Does a major recycling drive by big retailers stand up to scrutiny?

An initiative to increase the amount of plastic packaging being recycled is generating momentum across the UK, but complaints are surfacing about the fate of the material once it arrives in Poland and questions over duty of care have been raised. Conor McGlone investigates.

Photograph: Tesco announced in March it was launching the UK’s biggest network of recycling points for soft plastic. Photograph: Tesco

Major UK supermarkets are taking part in an initiative seeking to dramatically increase the amount of plastic packaging their consumers can recycle, but an ENDS investigation has revealed concerns about how the collected material is being exported and processed, prompting the Environment Agency (EA) to urge businesses to ensure they carry out sufficient duty of care checks.

Greenpeace said the investigation “throws up serious questions about what happens to plastic waste shipped off to Poland by major supermarkets” and that “both retailers and government agencies should seek answers”. 

Sainsbury’s and Tesco have both launched schemes in recent months that offer customers the ability to take their plastic film for recycling in-store. 

Hard-to-recycle flexible plastic packaging such as film is not currently collected by most councils in the UK, with just 6% of it recycled, despite it comprising a fifth of all plastic packaging put on the market. The initiative is being championed by resources charity WRAP and both supermarkets hope to launch full nationwide schemes soon. Other supermarkets, including Aldi and Coop, are trialing similar schemes.

However, ENDS can reveal that the company contracted by both supermarkets to recycle the material is locked in a legal dispute with authorities in Poland and is unwilling to provide details about where the material ends up.

The firm in question, Eurokey Recycling, opened a facility in Zielona Góra in 2016, where according to press reports, residents have complained about “insects, rats, mess and stench”.

Eurokey said inspections from the local Environmental Protection Agency had found no evidence to validate these claims, but was unwilling to provide the full report.

Two separate administrative proceedings, however, were launched by the local Environmental Protection Agency against Eurokey “regarding the order to remove waste from sites not intended for their storage”.

Eurokey has confirmed it is still in the process of appealing one of the disputes. However, it says the claim has “nothing to do with the way it processes waste material”, but instead refers to where it is storing the waste.

Eurokey says it does not manage highly-contaminated or hazardous waste “which is typically associated with sanitation issues”. However, an industry source told ENDS that the flexible packaging disposed of as part of the trial - including items like salad bags, crisp packets, biscuit wrappers, bread bags and frozen food bags - is often contaminated with food waste.

Eurokey employs 250 workers in its Zielona Góra plant to sort through the material before the plastic can be recycled.

Eurokey says it aims to enable closed looped systems where waste produce can be recycled and placed back in the market where it originated. “The consumer flexible film waste we collect as part of the trial is managed similarly to non-contaminated plastic film we collect as part of our normal contracts,” a spokesperson said.

After sorting the material, Eurokey says it either sells the graded material directly to processors for use in recycled products or it works with partners across Europe for further processing into plastic pellets which can be sold for use in a range of products.

However, Eurokey refused to provide ENDS with any detail on where the material goes, or the tonneages involved, citing commercial sensitivity.

Eurokey confirmed it ships the trial waste as ‘green list’ material, which means that under the Basel convention, it does not require notification and consent from the country it is shipping the waste to. The EA says firms can only classify waste as green list - and benefit from fewer export controls - if the material is “almost free from contamination and other types of waste”.

WRAP, which has been encouraging supermarkets to launch take-back schemes of this sort, released industry guidance this month on recycling flexible packaging. It notes that by the end of the year, a much larger proportion of the population will be able to take all types of plastic bags and wrapping into their local supermarkets to be collected for sorting and recycling.

In addition, it noted that the government is currently consulting on rolling out kerbside collections of flexible plastic packaging on a wider scale in the UK.

However, the ENDS source said: “The real question is where is it all going for actual recycling once sorted and what level of losses are there in the sorting operations? How much non-recyclable waste are we exporting?”

“It challenges the whole environmental credentials of a collection scheme for household films when there seems to be no transparency on the end result.”

WRAP said it was important to “recognise that the collection of material helps to stimulate the end markets – if it is not collected, it will never be recycled”.  

A spokesperson said: “In the long term, it’s imperative that we continue to invest and build capacity and capability to sort and recycle plastic waste within the UK. Not only will this increase jobs, it would ensure greater transparency and confidence in recycling.”

Poland was the UK’s third largest importer of UK plastic last year after Turkey and Malaysia, taking 7% of all the plastic the UK exports. However, Turkey has now banned the import of most plastics and DEFRA is due to consult on banning the export of plastic to non-OECD countries, meaning Poland could soon attract the bulk of the UK’s plastic exports.

Nina Schrank, who heads up Greenpeace UK’s plastic campaign, said: “It’s all very well for supermarkets to collect plastic packaging at their stores, but customers have a right to know where this waste ends up.

“It’s becoming clearer by the day that Britain needs to start taking responsibility for its own waste instead of passing on the plastic parcel to other countries. The UK government should use the Environment Bill to ban plastic waste exports and set legally binding targets to cut single-use plastic in half by 2025.”

An EA spokesperson said: “We urge everyone involved in waste management, including waste producers, to ensure that robust duty of care assessments are made on the companies that their waste is sent on to, right through to its final treatment or disposal.  Ensuring that the operations are carried out in conditions broadly equivalent to our own is a requirement.”

Sainsbury’s did not respond when asked whether it had carried out due diligence on Eurokey. It also failed to answer questions as to how it evaluates its supply chain and how it ensures its customers’ plastic is processed responsibly.

Instead, a spokesperson said: “The issues raised are either historic and were resolved years before our relationship with them or relate to a dispute which they are in the process of appealing.”

A spokesperson for Eurokey said: “Eurokey is a specialist packaging and reprocessing service provider focused on non-contaminated plastic and packaging waste. As part of our commitment to providing holistic recycling services we are working with several UK businesses to trial consumer flexible film recycling in a small number of locations. 

“As part of this trial, all plastic waste is sent for reprocessing in Eurokey owned and operated facilities which are regularly audited to ensure they meet the standards set by the local environmental authority.”

Reconomy, a waste management firm that recently acquired Eurokey,  said it completed thorough due diligence on Eurokey in advance of its acquisition. 

A spokesperson said: “We are confident that Eurokey shares our commitment to high environmental standards.”

Tesco did not respond to requests for comment.

This article was amended on 16 June to include an additional comment from Eurokey Recycling.