It might surprise you to hear that Britain doesn’t really recycle.
That’s because the UK doesn’t actually have the infrastructure in place to independently recycle all of its own plastic. Instead, most of Britain’s plastic waste is sent abroad.
But Malaysia — currently one of the main importers of the UK's plastic waste — has pledged to start sending some of it back.
Malaysia announced on Tuesday that it will return 3,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste to Britain, the US, Australia, Canada, Germany, and more. It’s after 60 shipping containers filled with contaminated waste were reportedly smuggled into the country, according to Sky News, including plastic bottles filled with maggots.
“Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world,” said Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s environment minister. “We will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can’t be bullied by developed countries.”
“What the citizens of the UK [and other countries] think they have sent for recycling are actually being dumped in our country,” she added. “Malaysians have a right to clean air, clean water, and a clean environment to live in, just like citizens of developed nations.”
Malaysia is sending back 3,000 tons of non-recyclable plastic waste to rich countries. It became a destination for plastic waste after China imposed a ban — leading to massive dumps and hazardous illegal recycling plants.— AJ+ (@ajplus) May 28, 2019
"Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world." pic.twitter.com/lsBSo5ZbfP
In response to Malaysia’s announcement, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) — led by Environment Secretary Michael Gove — published a statement on Wednesday insisting that plastics remained a “legitimate export market.”
“The UK is committed to tackling illegal waste exports, which is why individuals found to be exporting incorrectly described waste can face a two-year jail term or an unlimited fine,” read the statement.
“We are yet to receive a formal request from the Malaysian Authorities to repatriate any English waste, but discussions are ongoing to find ways to strengthen UK waste export management,” it added.
It’s estimated that Britain produces approximately 1.7 million tonnes of plastic annually. But less than half of UK household waste was recycled in 2017 — with incineration growing increasingly popular, emitting greenhouse gases in the process.
Globally, 90.5% of all plastic has never been recycled, a statistic declared the “international statistic of the year” by the Royal Statistical Society in 2018. The world uses over 300 million tonnes of plastic every single year.
BBC Reality Check found that in the 12 months up to October 2018, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes to other countries.
The import of plastic waste is a lucrative market, as countries often use it to produce new goods. But there’s no guarantee that our recycling is being reused — even though sending it abroad allows us to mark it down as having been successfully recycled.
And experts say that even after it gets there, it may very well end up either in landfill or being burned an incinerator.
"Malaysia is not able to process all of the imported waste — there are limited plastic waste factories", said Mageswari Sangaralingam, a representative from Friends of the Earth in Malaysia.
Malaysia is sending 3,300 tons of non-recyclable waste back to the U.S. and UK pic.twitter.com/6hppIYEZby— NowThis (@nowthisnews) May 28, 2019
Malaysia also wasn’t the first country to push back against Britain’s plastic exports.
Last year, China launched Operation National Sword, a move that dramatically limited the import of plastic waste from other countries.
The move was an alarming moment for the UK, as two-thirds of our plastic waste at the time was exported to China. As a result, our plastic exports to China have since dropped by 94%.
In place of China, the UK ramped up exports to other countries like Turkey, Indonesia, and Poland. But the majority went to Malaysia — which imported about 105,000 tonnes between 2017 and 2018.
It’s an emotional issue. In April, President Duterte of the Philippines threatened to go to war with Canada over 103 “illegal” shipping containers left in his country in 2013 and 2014. It was reportedly claimed at the time that the containers held recyclable plastic, but the Canadian government then committed to take it back.
Elsewhere across Asia, imported plastic has reportedly led to illegal operations and open burning of excess waste — causing the contamination of water supplies, crops being killed, and respiratory illnesses.
Indeed, Sir David Attenborough recently helped draw attention to research that found plastic pollution kills a person every 30 seconds — largely due to poor global waste collection and regulation.