plastic waste landfill

Tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic will face going to landfill or incineration if the government revives delayed plans for a ban on sending waste to developing countries, a body representing major supermarkets and retailers has warned.

Recoup, the recycling charity whose membership include the likes of Aldi, Asda and Tesco, as well as a raft of leading suppliers, released data showing the amount of plastic waste exported for recycling grew by more than 10% to over 600,000 tonnes between 2022-23.

More than a quarter (26%) was sent to non-Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or developing countries, including the likes of Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The government has vowed to ban exports of plastic packaging waste to non-OECD countries, although an expected consultation last year did not materialise.

Recoup warned because of the lack of recycling infrastructure in the UK, pushing ahead with the ban would lead to huge volumes of plastic going to landfill. It said if the ban had been in place last year, 140,000 tonnes of plastic exported to develop countries would have needed new destinations.

The body revealed more than 26% of recycled plastic exported was sent to non-OECD or developing countries, compared to the 16% in 2022, and just 6% in 2021, when overall quantities were also lower, resulting in an increase of 500% in three years.

Of the OECD destinations, 15,000 tonnes was exported to EU member states Bulgaria and Romania, with the remaining sent to a combination of countries in non-EU Europe, Asia and Egypt.

Recoup also warned the government that without investment in the UK’s recycling capability, a ban on exports to developing countries could lead to countries like Turkey taking an even more disproportionate level of waste from the UK.

Of the 600,000 tonnes in 2023, more than 25% was sent to Turkey, 25,000 tonnes more than the previous year, with almost a million tonnes of plastic having been sent to the country for recycling since 2017.

Recoup said while it would welcome the government consultation, the figures showed how vital it was for the market to be flexible with where it sent waste.

“To help address these issues, the UK requires development of its recycling infrastructure, as well as its policies, to limit the need for exporting of material in the first place, regardless of where, ” said report author Tom McBeth, Recoup policy and infrastructure manager.

“An outright ban does not feel an appropriate course of action, at least not without sufficient time and planning to develop domestic infrastructure to compensate for the loss of available markets. A sudden ban would likely result in more material being sent to landfill, incinerated or exported to other markets. Worse still, this may increase the likelihood that these countries merely act as a transfer station for the material to move on to other markets.

“If existing countries that currently receive plastic waste for recycling can join the OECD without evidencing suitable infrastructure or practices in relation to imported plastic waste for recycling, then this calls into question the use of OECD as the sole criteria for being permitted as a destination.”