UK plastics recycling industry under investigation

UK plastics recycling industry
© iStock/ kevin

The UK plastics recycling industry faces an investigation into its export practices after allegations of widespread fraud.

Waste exporters within the UK plastics recycling industry have been accused of a range of offences, including:

  • Allowing abuses of the system by repeat offenders and organised criminals;
  • Fraudulent claims for non-existent plastic waste;
  • Dumping plastic waste in the ocean rather than recycling it; and
  • Illegally laundering plastic waste to China via the Netherlands.

The Environment Agency (EA) has deployed a team of investigators to look into the actions of exporters affiliated with the UK plastics recycling industry.

Six plastic waste exporters based in the UK have had their licences suspended or revoked in the last three months. According to the EA, one firm been stopped at UK ports 57 times since 2015 over concerns about contaminated plastic waste.

The current export system for recyclable plastic waste requires exporters to self-report the volume of plastic they move and charge their clients by weight – but this is open to fraud by unscrupulous companies. Earlier this year the system was criticised by the National Audit Office for its lack of checks or verifications; and a Guardian investigation into the UK plastics recycling industry reports exporters declared 35,135 tonnes more plastic had been shipped abroad than had been recorded by HM Customs.

China stopped accepting British plastic waste exports in January 2018 as part of a campaign to restrict “yang laji” (“foreign garbage”). Since then exporters in the UK plastics recycling industry have relied increasingly on shipping plastic waste to Malaysia, Vietnam and Poland; but high contamination rates in plastics originating in the UK have led the former two countries to impose temporary bans on UK plastic waste imports.

As a consequence UK plastic imports to the Netherlands and Turkey have drastically increased; but it has been alleged that exporters have been shipping waste to the Netherlands, before moving shipments from the Netherlands to China and other East Asian countries. This “laundering” of plastic waste circumvents the Chinese ban on UK plastics and exploits the relative ease of obtaining a plastic waste export licence while in mainland Europe, compared to the UK.

Disposal of plastic packaging and waste, and the limitations of the UK plastics recycling industry, continue to pose a substantial issue in the UK. Nearly 5 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated annually in the UK, of which only 46 per cent is recycled.


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