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Environment

Plastic We Think We've Recycled Could Still End Up in a Landfill. Here's How.


Why Global Citizens Should Care
More than ever, we’re aware of the damage that our plastic is doing to our environment, and we’re taking action to make sure our waste is disposed of responsibly. But individual efforts can only go so far. You can join us by taking action here to help protect life on land and life below water, and to help create communities and cities that are sustainable. 

We go to the effort of separating our plastics from our paper, and our glass bottles from our food waste. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean our recycled waste is actually being recycled, according to a government spending watchdog that has warned our recyclables could still be ending up in landfill sites abroad. 

That definitely doesn’t mean stop recycling, but it does mean the UK’s recycling infrastructure could be due for an overhaul. 

Take action: Call on Governments and Business Leaders to Say No to Single-Use Plastics

Britain doesn’t currently have the right infrastructure to recycle much of its waste, so about half is exported to countries like Turkey, Malaysia, Poland, and, up until recently, China in order to be recycled.

Since 2002, the amount of waste that Britain sends to other countries has increased sixfold and, last year, it accounted for half of the packaging reported as having been recycled. 

Now, however, the National Audit Office (NAO) has raised concerns that the some of the waste we send to be recycled is actually contributing to landfill and waste pollution. 

The NAO has released a report criticising how the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) ensures that our recycling — especially that being sent abroad — is being disposed of responsibly.

Read more: UK Can Only Recycle 9% of Its Own Plastic. A New Report Says This Must Change

Two decades ago, the government introduced something known as the “packaging recycling obligation system,” to ensure that companies were doing their bit in ensuring waste was being recycled. 

It means that some companies have to demonstrate that a certain amount of their waste has been recycled — specifically, companies that handle over 50 tonnes of packaging per year, and that have a turnover higher than £2 million. 

Last year, 7,002 companies registered as part of this system and paid a total of £73 million towards the cost of recycling packaging, according to the NAO. 

On a side note, while that sounds like quite a lot, it works out at about £11 per tonne recycled. In comparison, in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, businesses pay about £43 per tonne recycled. 

Read more: How China's Shock Decision to Ban Recycled Plastic Is an 'Impending Crisis' for the UK

But the NAO has voiced concerns about how DEFRA oversees the scheme in England — including saying that DEFRA hasn’t been “sufficiently proactive” in dealing with the risks linked to a rise in the exports of waste, including “undetected fraud and error.” 

According to the report, “the financial incentive for companies to fraudulently claim they have recycled plastic packaging is higher than for any other material.”

Every year in the UK, households and businesses throw out about 11 million tonnes of packaging. Of this waste, around 64% was reported as having been recycled in 2017 — exceeding the EU recycling target of 55%, and significantly up from 31% in 1998. 

What’s more, DEFRA estimates that the UK has exceeded its overall packaging recycling target every year since 1997, according to the NAO. 

Read more: The UK Hasn't Had a New Environment Bill for Over 20 Years. Now That's About to Change

While the NAO was quick to point out it doesn't undermine the achievement of the overall target, it did express concern that, by shipping our recyclables abroad to reportedly be recycled, we aren’t taking responsibility for actually disposing of our waste — and we aren’t addressing the “fundamental issues.” 

“If the UK wants to play its part in fully tackling the impacts of waste and pollution, a tighter grip on packaging recycling is needed,” said Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, in a statement.

“20 years ago, the government set up a complex system to subsidise packaging recycling, which appears to have evolved into a comfortable way of meeting targets without addressing the fundamental issues,” he added.

“The government should have a much better understanding of the difference this system makes and a better handle on the risks associated with so much packaging waste being recycled overseas,” he said. 

Read more: This UK Store Will Buy Back Old Clothes to Cut Down on Waste

The NAO also raised concerns that DEFRA wasn’t keeping a close enough eye on how businesses are disposing of their waste, saying it had fallen “well short” of its targets for inspections. 

In 2016-2017, it said, DEFRA carried out 40% of planned compliance visits to reprocessors and exporters to check they accurately report the amount of packaging recycled. 

And, according to NAO, only 25% of high-risk exporters were subjected to a compliance visit in 2017, a lower proportion than those considered to be low-risk.

“We are concerned that the agency does not have strong enough controls to prevent the system subsidising exports of contaminated or poor-quality material,” the NAO said

Read more: 10 Facts About Plastic Pollution You Absolutely Need to Know

“A key government initiative to ensure that packaging is recycled — the packaging recycling obligation system — has subsidised waste exports to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure it is recycled,” it said. “The department also has no evidence that the system has encouraged companies to minimise the use of packaging or make it easy to recycle.”

The report also addressed China’s decision earlier in the year to ban the imports of waste from all other countries, citing concerns about high levels of contamination, saying it could lead to a dip or decline in recycling performance. 

“China has been the single largest market for UK exports of packaging material for recycling,” said NAO, adding that the decision has “disrupted global markets for waste.” 

Read more: This Supermarket Is Paying Shoppers to Recycle Plastic Bottles

Data from the first quarter of 2018, according to the NAO, suggests that the potential shortfall has mostly been made up by increased exports to other countries, but it’s not yet clear whether that can be sustained. 

DEFRA has committed to reform the system as part of a new strategy for waste and resources, and the NAO has made a number of suggestions for improvement.

“Our overall sense is that over a long period government has allowed the obligations to keep rolling forward without asking the important questions,” it concluded. 

NAO recommends that DEFRA should improve its approach to estimating packaging recycling rates, as well as doing more to evaluate the scale of fraud and error within the system, including the extent of contamination in waste exports.