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A ragpicker looks for recyclable items on a pile of garbage at a landfill in Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia.
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NewsEnvironment

The UK Keeps Sending Plastic Waste to Poor Countries, Defying Past Pledge

Why Global Citizens Should Care 
Plastic pollution is a growing environmental crisis that threatens all forms of life. The United Nations calls on countries to reduce plastic production and improve waste management. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

The UK is sending plastic waste to low- and middle-income countries despite a partial ban on the practice that went into effect across the EU on Jan. 1, according to the Guardian.

The EU-wide ban, which prevents shipments of plastic waste to countries outside of the Organization of Economic Cooperations and Development, was developed while the UK was still a part of the political bloc. The UK government had said that it wouldn’t backslide on environmental commitments after its departure from the EU, but the ongoing shipment of plastic waste shows that it’s already falling behind its peers. 

The country says that it will keep sending shipments of plastic waste to countries that had previously agreed to take it, claiming that countries can reject the arrangement at any time. Environmental advocates told the Guardian that the continuation of the practice shows that the UK isn’t yet serious about curbing its plastic waste. 

The UK has the second-highest per capita rate of plastic consumption in the world, but the country has failed to develop sufficient infrastructure for recycling and disposing of all this plastic. 

As plastic waste accumulates, particularly the hard-to-recycle kind, the country simply puts it into shipping containers and pays other countries to take it and figure out how to recycle or dispose of it. 

In September 2020 alone, the UK sent more than 7,000 metric tons of plastic waste to countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Turkey, according to the nonprofit Last Beach Clean Up.

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This plastic waste often ends up going to landfills or getting burned in ways that contaminate sources of air, water, and food. In Malaysia, for example, illegal plastic-burning factories have become a menace to communities.

China used to be the largest recipient of excess plastic waste, but the country cracked down on the practice in 2018. Since then, countries like the UK, the US, and Canada have scrambled to find other dumping grounds.

Many of these countries have since restricted the practice as well after getting inundated with junk plastic. Both the Philippines and Malaysia have sent shipping containers full of plastic waste back to where they came from.  

“Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world,” Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s environment minister, said at the time. “We will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can’t be bullied by developed countries.

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“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.”

Low-income countries such as Bangladesh, Laos, Senegal, and Ethiopia have emerged as the new dumping grounds due to lax environmental laws, according to the Guardian

Environmental groups have long warned that the plastic pollution crisis has been spiraling out of control. Many countries have vowed to reduce plastic production, and global conventions have been convened to improve international recycling and waste management. 

But plastic production is expected to increase by 40% over the next decade

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While the EU will seek to take responsibility for the amount of waste it generates, countries such as the UK will continue to pass the responsibility elsewhere.

“We had assumed the UK would at least follow the EU, and so it is a shock to find out now that instead they choose to have a far weaker control procedure, which can still permit exports of contaminated and difficult-to-recycle plastics to developing countries,” Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network, told the Guardian. 

He added: “They are talking the talk, but they have failed to walk the walk.”