The UK is a significant contributor to the world’s plastic crisis, generating approximately 43.9 million tonnes of commercial and industrial (C&I) waste in 2018, of which 37.2 million tonnes (85%) was generated in England. Our recycling system is already overwhelmed by plastic waste. Now, our waste is overwhelming other countries’ recycling systems, causing severe harm to their citizens and the environment. Calculated by UN Comtrade’s database, British paper waste imports to India grew by nearly three times in four years, from 2016 to 2019. Despite tightened regulation shrinking plastic waste imports from the UK to India down to a tenth, there are still misalignments in the containment of waste, decontamination and pollution rates. Siddhart Ghanshyam Singh, deputy programme manager at a science and environment think-tank based in New Delhi told iNews that “the biggest challenge is contamination,” which has been a consequence of past dumping of foreign waste.

On the 30th July, the UK’s largest waste company, Biffa, was fined £1.5m after exporting rubbish marked as waste paper for recycling in India and Indonesia. The company has been convicted of sending more than 1,000 tonnes of household waste to India and Indonesia breaking the ban on sending such waste to developing countries. This is a landmark case that has been coined a turning point for waste disposal and environmental law enforcement. However, in an InNews piece, Sirine Rached, an advocate for Zero Waste Europe, a Brussels-based NGO, highlights that, in actuality, many plastics and waste are not properly treated to reduce contamination, so while workers may sort through these items they themselves are at risk from the products – as is the environment around them.

Both Indonesia and India have tightened norms for acceptable contamination of plastic with paper but implementing them remains a concern. Toxic Links, a New Delhi based nonprofit that works to restrict hazardous waste, calls for stricter monitoring and labelling of imported waste. Their associate director, Satish Sinh, argues that “This is not how we want to develop our economy […] The cost of dealing with the environment is higher than the cost of what is retrieved.”

In 2020 the UK exported 537,000 tonnes of plastic waste with the top three countries for UK waste exports being Turkey (39%), Malaysia (12%) and Poland (7%). All three countries have relatively low recycling rates, limited environmental policy enforcement and serious problems with waste being disposed of inappropriately (illegally dumped or burned, both releasing toxins to the surrounding environment). Our World in Data explores these three countries and the amount of waste exported to them. The volume of plastic waste shipped to Turkey increased by 36% compared with 2019. The volume exported to Malaysia increased by 63%. Half of the UK’s mixed plastic waste – which is almost impossible to recycle – went to Turkey. This is an issue of global capacity and consumption. National governments who oversee countries with high levels of waste, with the financial ability and infrastructure available, need to make drastic changes and advocate for citizens to reduce their waste. 

Greenpeace argues that many of the countries that British waste is being shipped to do not have adequate recycling facilities, and British plastic waste has been dumped or burnt in illegal rubbish dumps worldwide. Thousands of tonnes of illegal plastic waste exports have now been sent back to the UK by China, Malaysia, Poland, Sri Lanka and other countries. In its 2019 manifesto, the government said it would ban plastic waste exports to countries not members of the OECD. However, as it stands, 21% of the UK’s waste exports are to non-OECD countries. 79% of UK waste goes to countries in the OECD, such as Turkey, and would not be affected by the proposed ban. Therefore environmental justice activists and organisations like Greenpeace and Toxic Link are calling on the government to ban ‘all plastic waste exports’.  Similarly, a recent study by WWF found that 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste were ‘open dumped’ in Turkey every year. An estimated 110,000 tons of plastic waste enters the Mediterranean from Turkey every year.

Drastic steps need to be taken for alleviating waste disposal and promoting the strategy of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ along with stricter government regulations.

Mia Clement

Mia (she/they) is a second-year geographer at Christ Church. Mia is now the Managing Director for the Blue for Trinity Term 2022 after working as a Junior and Senior Editor in the Global Affairs Section for the Blue.