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Friday, 12 July 2013

The UK's exported waste: the hidden truth

    Tom Mooring, Flikr

Who actually knows what happens to the waste carefully sorted by UK households and businesses to be recycled? I thought I did - the glossy council advertisements told me that it was sent off to the nearest recycling centre to be processed into new materials for manufacturing. Yet underneath the propaganda lies an unwelcome truth: more than a third of the waste paper and plastic collected in Britain is actually processed in China - 8,000 miles away.
In its desperate search for raw materials to fuel industrialisation, China is buying up vast quantities of waste from UK councils and businesses. Meanwhile, with EU legislation driving up landfill costs, thousands of tonnes of contaminated waste that could be dealt with in Britain is being shipped abroad without any knowledge of the environmental costs.
“China is buying up everything it can. It is sucking in material from all over the world and it doesn’t give two noodles what it takes,” said one plastics recycler interviewed in an investigation by the Guardian.
This is depriving UK recycling firms of waste to process, and was identified by industry expert Chris Dow as one of the key barriers to the future growth of the industry. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology notes in a report: “The ability of [reprocessors] to attract investment has been limited by… variation in recycling systems across England and the volumes of recyclate being exported.” In other words, the lack of recycling infrastructure in the UK leads to waste being sent abroad, which starves UK centres of waste to process.

Recycling is no longer solely a means of reducing the amount of waste going to landfill, as the commodities it produces have an economic value. These are becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, and a survey by the UK Engineering Employers Federation found that 80% of its members thought raw material shortage would be a risk to their businesses in 2014. Recycling also has a beneficial effect on job creation, with one report suggesting that 50,000 new jobs could be created if the UK recycled 70% of its waste.
Yet Government legislation is exacerbating the problem, as it currently incentivises companies to export their waste rather than have it recycled in the UK. Under the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN), a UK reprocessor has to prove that over than 75% of waste collected is uncontaminated to receive credits, yet there is no corresponding requirement for exporters. This gives the latter a huge advantage, a fact frequently acknowledged by industry members. The legislation is – excuse the pun – rubbish, and should be thrown out the next time a refuse truck passes through Downing Street.
Moreover, councils who pay companies to export their waste often have very little idea of where it will end up. According to Councillor Paul Bettison from the Local Government Association: “46 councils have no idea of where their recycling goes.” Although DEFRA rejected an article in the Daily Mail which claimed that much of this waste is destined for foreign landfill sites, the fact is that they simple do not know – the lack of accountability is astounding.
Let me be clear – sending recycling abroad is better than dumping it in landfill, and the use of ships which have already delivered their products in the UK increases the efficiency of this process. It would be reasonable therefore to assume that export could still have a minimal role in the future.
However, the current situation is unacceptable, especially when it is frequently carried out by councils without the knowledge of taxpayers. Recycling requires up-front investment, but with three billion pounds available from the UK Green Investment Bank and the support of private investors, far more waste should be processed domestically in the future. It is also necessary for the Government to adapt the flawed PRN credit system to remove incentives for exporters.
In these ways we can create a sensible recycling system in Britain that works for our environment and economy.

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