UK witnesses surge in plastic packaging waste exports to non-OECD countries, raising concerns
24 Jan 2024 — Recoup reveals an increase in the export of plastic waste for recycling from the UK in 2023. Based on data from Freedom of Information requests to the UK Environment Agency, the findings highlight a growing trend of sending “significant quantities” of plastic waste to developing and non-OECD nations where necessary waste infrastructure is lacking.
Despite a year-on-year increase in the material recycled domestically, the data reveals a surge of over 10% in the export of plastic waste from England alone, totaling over 600,000 metric tons, the plastics charity details. More than 25% of this was directed to Türkiye, marking a 25,000 ton increase from 2022 and approaching nearly 1 million tons sent to Türkiye for recycling since 2017.
Germany emerged as the second-largest destination, receiving just under 10%, while the overall material sent to Asia increased from approximately 9% in 2022 to nearly 20% in 2023. Malaysia and Vietnam, two non-OECD countries experiencing decreasing volumes in recent years, each received around 8%, with Indonesia and Taiwan receiving 3.4% and 2.5%, respectively.
More than 26% of the exported plastic waste was sent to non-OECD or developing countries, marking an increase from 16% in 2022 and 6% in 2021. This amounts to 155,000 tons, including shipments to EU member states Bulgaria and Romania and other countries in non-EU Europe, Asia and Egypt.
More than 26% of the UK exported plastic waste was sent to non-OECD or developing countries.“While discussions take place around a ban on export to non-OECD countries, these figures show the market’s resilience and flexibility at a time when recycled plastic demand was at a low across Europe, not least in part due to low virgin oil prices and high virgin plastic production, particularly outside of Europe. As such, this material exported for recycling would likely have otherwise gone to landfill or incineration,” writes Recoup.
“A ban on the export of waste from the UK to non-OECD countries is expected, being part of the Conservative party’s manifesto, but a consultation on this did not materialize as expected in 2023. While the non-OECD EU member states are not included in the proposed ban (Malta, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania), this still leaves around 140,000 tons of plastic exported that would need new receiving destinations.”
Reduce reliance on exports
Recoup emphasizes the need for a nuanced approach, calling for a careful evaluation of the infrastructure and policies in destination countries rather than relying solely on OECD membership as a metric. The organization advocates for developing the UK’s recycling infrastructure and policies to reduce reliance on exports.
“It is known that while countries seen in the news with poor quality waste management and incidences of illegal burning or burying of waste are more often non-OECD countries, there are high-quality reprocessing facilities in many of these countries. Equally, being an OECD country does not guarantee that all facilities and national waste and environmental policies are of sufficient quality,” the charity stresses.
“This follows from Recoup’s Plastic Waste Exports Position that material should only be exported as long as there is robust evidence that the infrastructure is in place to handle it, and to help ensure illegal, unethical or unnecessary exports are stopped.”
Addressing the need for transparency and oversight, Recoup suggests the implementation of Digital Waste Tracking by 2025. This system aims to provide real-time and transparent reporting of material transportation within the UK and overseas, replacing the current paper-based system.
“A system that should allow a live, accurate and, most importantly, transparent reporting of material transportation in the UK and overseas, replacing the archaic paper-based system currently in place. This much-needed update will help ensure confidence in exports and material end destinations. This is especially important for import and export out of England, where the lion’s share of UK material is exported from, and Wales,” Recoup asserts.
The organization recommends reviewing the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system, which has incentivized waste export over domestic processing since its inception in the late 1990s. Recoup suggests the implementation of Digital Waste Tracking for live, accurate and transparent reporting of material transportation in the UK and overseas.
“A formal system review was called for following the 2021 packaging EPR consultation in 2025. These notes act as the current packaging producer responsibility scheme, purchased based on the amount of packaging placed on the UK market, with the money then intended to be reinvested into the infrastructure to manage the waste at the end of life. However, PRN prices are volatile, fluctuating based on recycling rates and demand, making them unsuitable for business planning,” elucidates Recoup.
“Material that is exported using Packaging Export Recovery Notes (PERN) includes the weight of any contamination or non-target material that may be lost in the recycling steps that take place overseas, prior to reaching any end-of-waste status. Removing the economic variable between PRNs and PERNs based on the point the note is claimed would make UK recycling more economically attractive to recyclers and help balance the market.”
As the UK faces challenges in managing its plastic waste, stakeholders are urged to work collaboratively to ensure a sustainable and ethical approach to waste management, emphasizing the importance of effective, transparent and ethical waste management practices.
At the beginning of 2023, the European Parliament took a step by adopting a negotiating position for a revised law aimed at overhauling EU waste shipments.
However, in November, a global coalition raised 180,000 signatures on a petition urging the EU to implement a comprehensive ban on plastic waste exports to both non-OECD and OECD countries. The joint petition cited the “unethical and exploitative nature” of plastic waste exports.
By Radhika Sikaria
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