What happens to your waste once you’ve done your bit?

Recycling is a vital part of looking after the planet and mitigating climate change. By preserving and reusing important resources such as paper, card, aluminium, glass and even plastic, we’re able to save more than 700 million tonnes of CO2 emissions across the world every year – and this is projected to increase to one billion tonnes by 2030.

This sounds promising, but it also means that we’re generating more waste overall. According to the latest government statistics, the UK alone generated 222.9 million tonnes of waste in 2016 – up 4% from 2014. While the majority of that waste is created by construction and demolition, household waste – the stuff we throw away every day in our homes – accounts for over 27% of the total.

We can all play our part to improve recycling rates – it’s not difficult to rinse food off containers, or make sure you’re putting the right materials in the right bin (check out more easy recycling tips here). But what happens to our recycling once we’ve done our bit? This is where things get murky.

Where does recycling go?

Some materials, such as card and glass, are easily recycled, and there’s a strong financial argument for companies to do so. There are multiple MRFs (material recycling facilities) throughout the UK that can manage this waste stream. Other materials, though – namely plastic – are not so easy to deal with and historically this waste has been sent overseas.

According to analysis by the BBC, roughly two-thirds of plastic waste in the UK is sent abroad to be recycled, largely in a bid to reduce costs – there are limited plastic recycling facilities in the UK, and those that do exist are often expensive.

Countries overseas, however, have been willing to accept our plastic waste. Whether they have appropriate recycling facilities or can find another market for the material, it’s been a financial win for them to do so. And it’s taken the plastic off our hands in a seemingly sustainable way, since sending it overseas for ‘recycling’ still counts as having it recycled.

However, what was once a mutually-beneficial arrangement has become increasingly strained over time. Until January 2018, China imported most of the world’s scrap plastic, but due to concerns about contamination and pollution, it announced it would no longer accept plastic waste that wasn’t 99.5% pure. The amount of the UK’s plastic taken by China then dropped dramatically by 94%.

Why are illegal plastic exports increasing?

Other countries stepped in to pick up some of the slack. Malaysia, for example, subsequently imported 68% more than it had in previous years. But then Malaysia also began pushing back, claiming that the plastic it received was also contaminated and polluted. In September 2019, it announced it would begin returning the unsuitable plastic waste to its exporting countries.

This has led to an increase in illegal imports, with companies responsible for managing plastic waste finding ways to smuggle the material in to countries such as Malaysia, Poland and Indonesia. Again, when this is discovered, it is sent back. In January, Malaysia returned 42 containers of illegal material, for example, while more than 220 tonnes of illegally exported waste was recently discovered in Poland, and is set to be returned to UK shores as soon as possible.

According to the UK Environment Agency, this illegal waste is the responsibility of the private companies that imported it. Waste management company Biffa, for example, was found guilty of breaching waste export laws in 2015 and was fined £600,000. Guilty parties can also face up to two years in prison. Clearly, this has not been much of a deterrent.

Until now the UK has relied on simply shipping its waste problem elsewhere, but as importing countries close their doors, we’ll have to find other ways of dealing with the problem. It’s probably no coincidence that UK incineration rates are also on the up, with sustainability charity Wrap suggesting much of the incinerated material is plastic that would have once been bound for countries overseas. This is far from a sustainable solution, as incineration has been shown to increase air pollution and exacerbates climate change.

What can be done about problem plastic?

For those of us that take the time to recycle conscientiously, stories about illegal waste exports and increased incineration rates can be disheartening, especially as consumers have very little control over what happens to our rubbish once it’s been collected. But you can still make a difference – a lot of people making small changes can add up to a big change.

  • Reduce your material consumption – the less material you use in the first place, the less there is to be dealt with by waste operators.
  • Reuse plastic materials wherever possible – using something again means fewer resources are used to create new materials, and fewer items end up in landfill, incineration or in an illegal shipping container.
  • Continue to recycle efficiently – this means making sure no materials are contaminated with food, and that everything goes into the correct box or bag.
  • Find out which waste contractors your council has employed to deal with rubbish and recycling in your area and lobby your MP to ensure they adhere to sustainable practices.

The bottom line

Recycling is an important part of mitigating climate change, but as these stories of illegal dumping and contaminated waste demonstrate, it’s not failsafe. Continue to recycle all the materials you use, but the biggest way to make a difference is to use fewer materials in the first place.

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