S & S Decoded: Export Exposé – Plastic Recycling & Britain’s Dirty Secret

Since the 1980’s, the emergence of recycling has become integrated into the habitual daily mechanics of life in both households and businesses across the UK. As consumers with a growing sense of consciousness, we meticulously inspect labels in attempts to decipher what we can and cannot recycle and engage in efforts to sort our packaging in a bid to ready it for its next life phases of collection, recycling, or in an ideal world repurposing. Situated at the epicentre of our recycling rituals is the polymer we all love to hate, plastic which we toil to separate and throw away in the correct fashion. But, where is away? Does away really exist? In short, no. 

From Chelmsford to China and Kensington to Kuala Lumpur, this export exposé and S & S Decoded feature, seeks to shed light on what truly happens to the majority of our plastic recycling after it has left our humble abodes and the facilities of businesses. We know that our strengths in exports lie in machinery, vehicles, Royal Wedding memorabilia, Cadburys and Piers Morgan, however Britain has also developed a seismic routine dependence on exporting our plastic waste. 

What’s a PRN? How did the UK recycling system become corrupt, embroiled in scandal and a facilitator in trash mafias? What exactly is the Green Fence and National Sword Policy? Why does it matter that our recycling is dumped overseas? Does Michael Gove need to go to Specsavers? Pertinent questions that will all be addressed. 

Exploring the journey of our plastic recycling across the globe, its impact on the environment and quality of life in developing countries and the necessary action required by the leaders of the UK to recognise that recycling streams present a golden economic opportunity are also considered. 

As has become customary for contextualisation, here are a scattering of decoded facts from my research illustrating Britain’s litter pickle:

  • Over half of the global plastic intended for recycling is traded overseas 
  • UK households and businesses used 11 million tonnes of packaging last year
  • British household recycling rates have stagnated at about 44%, and the UK is unlikely to hit its target of 50% by 2020
  • The UK only has the capacity to recycle 7% of the plastic we expend
  • 2/3 of our plastic packaging waste is exported by an export industry which was worth more than £50m in 2018
  • Since 2011, the UK has spent nearly £1 billion exporting our waste overseas
  • British export firms claim to have shipped abroad 35,135 tonnes more plastic than HM Customs has recorded leaving the country
  • Between January and August 2018, the UK exported over 88,000 tonnes of plastic scrap to Malaysia
  • If the country continues dumping rubbish at the same rate by 2025 London, the East of England, the South East and South West will have no remaining landfill capacity

What’s occurring? 

The UK’s infrastructure that handles recycling streams is complex to say the least with over 400 devolved collection systems across the country

In an idealised scenario, plastic recycling would follow these steps: 

How recycling happens

Step 1: Once our recycling is collected, it is sorted into bales, subsequently sold to be deconstructed and re-processed into material. 

Step 2: Collection companies sort and re-sell the materials with value to brokers or recycling plants that engage in another stage of cleaning and sorting. This can continue multiple times for further reprocessing until it arrives to a manufacturer with the demand for the recycled materials.  

NB* Plastic, due to its heterogeneity with numerous chemical compositions and types is one of the most difficult materials to recycle. 

Step 3: Utilising the example of a plastic (PET) water bottle. It arrives at the factory, washed in chemicals to remove labels and chopped. Plants separate lid from bottle plastic using ‘flotation pools’. They produce three different materials; lid flakes, bottle flakes and labels. 

Flakes are ‘extruded’/melted down into pellets often emitting chemicals into the air created by the additives in the polymer. 

Step 4: The pellets are then sold.  

Plastics can be recycled in an environmentally way to conserve energy and resources by: 

  • Treating water correctly
  • Disposing of chemical waste responsibly and ensuring harmful emissions don’t escape 

Whilst this plastic recycling utopian process and best practice does indeed take place to an extent, it is not a uniform approach adopted by all. 

Obligations exist in the UK that require over 7,000 firms generating waste to provide tangible evidence annually they are indeed recycling. This is a system that relies on trust and transparency as companies are accountable in making self-declarations about the level of plastic recycling they are exporting. 

The process works whereby recycling credits, known as ‘Packaging Recovery Notes’ (PRNs) are purchased to satisfy the government and demonstrate their active contribution. PRNs incentivise recycling as a means for businesses to offset the amount of packaging they place into the UK market and each business faces different criteria depending on the raw materials it produces.

This open market system has now unfortunately been subject to abuse induced by our heavy reliance on exports due to the fact the UK currently only has the capacity to recycle 7% of the plastic we expend. 

The scheme involves paying exporters subsidies for the full volumes of recyclate (raw material sent to waste plant) they remove from the country regardless of how much has to be discarded when it reaches its final destination. To alleviate us of our rubbish these exporting companies capitalise by charging retailers and manufacturers a rate of £60-70 per tonne of plastic recycling. It is essential to note that this market price does not reflect the true cost to the environment or society and thus represents a substantial negative externality in waste trade. 

Many exporters are accessing low cost, poorly regulated waste disposal routes in the Far East to eject their subsidised plastic recycling from the UK.  Rather befittingly, this has created quite the scandal regarding accountability, fraud and widespread abuse in recent months. It has prompted an investigation, launched by the National Audit into the suspected criminalities, corruption and fraud within the British export system. 

The Guardian reported that the investigation is probing into: 

  • The exporters who are falsely claiming 10,000’s of tonnes of plastic waste which may not truly exist 
  • UK plastic waste not being recycled and subsequently leaking into water sources 
  • The illegal shipment of UK plastic waste to South East Asia 
  • UK firms with serial offences continue to be allowed to export contaminated plastic waste 

As a means of formal address, the National Audit Offices sited concerns “that the [Environment Agency] does not have strong enough controls to prevent the system subsidising exports of contaminated or poor-quality material.” 

Contaminated plastic ‘recycling’ Source: Guardian

Far too many tea breaks, diminished government budgets, failing to tackle abuses and sheer neglect is demonstrated by the fact that in 2016-17 Environmental Agency staff carried out fewer than 40 of 346 (11.9%) spot checks on the exporting companies it had planned to. What’s more, the results determined those abusing the system are not being reprimanded. Evidence of this is at least five export firms flagged as red rated for their risk in disposal are still operating and 33 considered to be of medium risk are also still accredited to export waste. 

An analysis of data by the Guardian below reveals discrepancies in British export firms who claim to have shipped abroad 35,135 tonnes more plastic than HM Customs have recorded leaving the country

This is significant as it implies custom figures on plastic waste are lower than the figures provided to the Environmental Agency by exporters. Cue lie detector test! Claiming to ship larger volumes of plastic recycling in order to receive PRN’s essentially means these exporting companies are prospering from our carefully sorted recycling that we believe to be repurposed! 

This spotlights the root of the problem at home, because of the lucrative price of plastic recycling, over any other material at £60-£70, the higher financial incentive motivates a sharp shift in shipping of our plastic and dumping across the globe, regardless of its quality, contamination levels and recovery rate. 

Source: Guardian

Plastic Placement – Out of Sight and Out of Mind? 

So there has been some serious subversion of trust, perennial excuses for neglect, falsification of records, turning a blind eye to corruption and polluting in the process, all for the sake of profits into the hands of a few exporting companies. This malpractice sees the ports of our country ship over 100 containers of plastic recycling a day, and then where does it go you ask? 

Traditionally, this has fallen to the Asian hubs of China and Hong Kong. China’s notoriety in importing recycling has been created by foreign demand, lax environmental and social regulatory laws similar to any outsourcing advantages of any industry searching for low cost and strengthening its global value chain. 

Firstly, it should be known there is a substantial global market and trade for waste as the World Bank estimates that by 2050 our rate of global waste will increase from 2 billion tonnes/year to 3.4 billion. They also report that recycled waste per year is 270 million tonnes (=740 empire state buildings) which highlights a golden economic opportunity if you have your circular economy and cradle to cradle hat on. 

Imported rubbish is referred to as ‘yang laji’ in China who since 1992 has hospitably accommodated a cumulative total of 45% of global plastic waste. Lucy Siegle sites through her research that between the years of 2012 to January 2018, with certain limits actually enforced, the UK still successfully shipped more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic scrap to mainland China and Hong Kong. 

Pollutants and hazardous characteristics are synonymous with plastics but Chinese entrepreneurs have recognised the value in these recycled materials. For example, take China’s first female billionaire, Zhang Yin, who built her company, Nine Dragons, by importing paper from the US and operating mills at home *starts hoarding paper*. 

A Global Shift in the Export Recycling Landscape

With this rate and calibre of recycling, it is no wonder that China has sought to clean its commodity stream through various policy avenues.

They began road testing this in 2013 with the introduction of their ‘Green Fence Policy’. This was a campaign to increase the quality of plastic waste that China was receiving whilst simultaneously reducing illegal foreign smuggling of our plastic recycling. Although incremental in nature, as it did not entirely stop the formal inflow of plastic, its implementation and tactics cascaded into the development of the ‘National Sword Policy’ implemented in December 2017. This crack down which banned the shipping of 24 types of solid waste has been argued in a recent report, ’The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade’ to have highlighted the fragility of global dependence on a single importer. Its authors Brooks, Wang, and Jambeck uncover how the efforts to build another metaphorical wall and prevent its territory from contaminated irrecoverable waste has transformed China and Hong Kong. The success of this restructuring has seen the countries transition from buying 60% of plastic waste exported by G7 countries during the first half of 2017, to a mere 10% in the very same year. Now how’s THAT for a quick turnaround having taken out effectively 50% of the global capacity for recyclable material and forcing the hands of many to re-evaluate.

Source: Science Advances

The map showcases the pattern of the global waste imported to China and Hong Kong prior to the National Sword Policy. It notedly also created frictions within the market as it spurred a collapse in the price of plastic as well as low-grade paper. For the UK specifically, the impact of the policy was substantial. In the first four months of 2018, Chinese imports of plastic from Great Britain fell by 97% and 71% in Hong Kong respectively demonstrating its effectiveness as illustrated below.

Source: BBC

This prompted the justified inquiry from MP’s in 2017 to Environmental Secretary Michael Gove on his strategic agenda in mitigating the fallout from China’s strict enforcement. In response, Mr Gove replied: “I do not know what impact it will have. It is a very good question and something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given sufficient thought.”

*Eyes roll and get firmly lodged in back of head*

Such statements mark an oversight in risk management as Defra had been aware and commissioned several briefing notes on China’s crack down on importing our plastic recycling. It also demonstrates an underestimation and failure to identify the opportunity to encourage and stimulate investment in the UK’s plastic recycling and reprocessing industry. 

Post National Sword Policy – The UK’s Plastic Recycling Plays Musical Chairs

Such mountainous displacement begs the question, where is it going now? The National Sword Policy is estimated by 2030 to displace close to 111 million metric tonnes of plastic ‘recycling’ according to the Science Advance journal. As a general trajectory, neighbouring countries in the region of South East Asia are bearing the brunt and strain of China’s rigid laws. In figures revealed by the Financial Times, of approximately 1,700 importers, over a third have relocated to South East Asia. Relocation, relocation, relocation to faraway isles that do not comparably have the capacity or infrastructure of China. Popular destinations for our castaways are now predominantly located in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia as well as lands closer to home such as Poland, the Netherlands and Turkey. Tracing the rapid adjustment of hotspots for our exports presents quite the scenario.

Source: Guardian

Between January and August of 2018, such a shift saw the UK export over 88,000 tonnes of plastic scrap to Malaysia, over a quarter of our total plastic scrap exports. Malaysia has now become the dominant importer of plastic scrap in the world with a volume that has now doubled that of China and Hong Kong. Additionally, according to data compiled by the FT presented in the snapshot below, Vietnam saw a doubling in the imports of its plastic scrap and shipments to Indonesia rose 56%. Thailand has simultaneously experienced the largest percentage increase as plastic recycling imports have grown by a whopping 1370%. 

Source: Financial Times

Why is this important you ask? According to Axion, leading circular economy specialists, an astounding 82% of ocean plastic originates in Asia Pacific countries. With the knowledge that by 2050 at our current trajectory there will be more plastic in the oceans per weight than fish, can we really afford to neglect this leakage to the Far East? 

The key challenge is not that the plastic recycling is leaving our shores in the first place but a lot of this ‘clean’ recycled plastic is actually contaminated, with hazardous properties and high levels of toxicity. Not only does this have a gargantuan environmental impact on biodiversity and landscapes but it presents an acute social and moral dilemma and raises issues of quality of life.  

As financial incentives of plastic ‘recycling’ are so high, the legitimacy of acclaimed % recovery rates of plastic exports must be scrutinised. When materials are poorly sorted, exposed to sunlight, soil microbes and water, Greenpeace reports recovery rates could be as low as 30-40%! It is crucial to note that on average, mixed waste will never be more than 60% recyclable, meaning that 40% of this will find itself discarded into a landfill, on an entirely different continent from where it originated!  

The Science Advance paper found that high income countries have been the primary exporters of plastic waste since 1988, representing 87% of all global exports valued at close to $71billion USD. Congruently to this, central Asia and a handful of European countries have dominated imports owning a share of 75% of our plastic recycled waste with a value of $83.3billion USD. 

It is precisely these historical trends of waste management practices that demonstrate the pinnacle of the problem, lack of accountability and transparency which is exacerbated by global inequality. Wealthier nations with more robust waste management infrastructure are sending plastic waste with low recovery rates to countries that are still developing economically with less developed waste management infrastructure thereby exposing an objectionably high level of social irresponsibility. 

Greenpeace Unearthed has divulged the illegal dumping taking place in Malaysia, specifically the port town of Klang near Kuala Lumpur and Iphoh 140m north of the capital. Under the stacks of sacks branded with the logos of councils from Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham, Tower Hamlets as well as local authorities in Essex, packaging from British staples ranging from Fairy dishwasher tablets, tubs of Flora, Yeo Valley yoghurt, Tesco Finest crisps and Heinz baked beans are all present.

UK Plastic ‘recycling’ captured in illegal factories in Malaysia Photos: Jules Rahman Ong via Greenpeace Unearthed

You can find the full report here.  Reuters also provide a shocking slideshow which you can view here. Commenting on this imagery Mary Creagh, Labour MP and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee stated “These shocking pictures show that when we throw things away, there is no such thing as away.” 

When Chelmsford Council had been flagged for their overseas disposal of plastic recycling here, the council confirmed its recycling had been handled by companies accredited by Defra. Thus, insinuating an abuse of trust held between devolved powers of Councils and the centralised environmental system. 

The correct procedures of recycling plastic outlined at the beginning of this feature are not customary for Klang facilities as it was found only 13/54 sites had the correct licences, widening the scope for abuse. This, in parallel to its environmental impact is affecting the quality of life of local residents where many have complained about the fumes emitted from the recycling factories raising health concerns. It is also not far-fetched to imagine that labour conditions are mirrored to Lucy Siegle’s anecdotal experience on her trip to Columbo where a 90 metre mountain of waste had collapsed killing twenty-three people. 

On balance, favoured due to its lightweight, mouldability and durability, differentiating plastic polymers have created value in the guise of an informal recycling sector for women in countries like Vietnam who have fashioned businesses from plastic bottles. However, for the most part, the leaking and incineration of contaminated imported waste has seen South East Asia begin to enforce its own regulations and close its doors to follow in the footsteps of China. 

So with these new restrictions THEN where? The burden of our plastic recycled waste is now nearshoring, shifting much closer to home and quite literally mounting in countries such as the Netherlands, Poland and Turkey. It was reported that exports to the Netherlands rose from 28,784 tonnes in the first half of 2016, compared to like for like in 2018 where they received 38,207. 

Poland has become the second largest EU destination for UK plastic waste where it has fostered the rise of the Polish ‘trash mafia’ who are profiting, pocketing millions and burning the waste you and I thought was being recycled. 

Another rising final destination for UK exports, is Turkey who received in the first quarter of 2018 27,034 tonnes. According to OECD data, as of 2015, Turkey recycled only 1% of its domestic waste sending the remainder to landfill which also lends one to the idea they do not currently possess the capacity to handle and dispose of foreign garbage in the correct manner.

International & Domestic Policy Solutions  

Tracing the paradigm shift in recent years spurs the inquest into what is the most valuable and viable long-term solution to overhaul the global recycling system? Ellen MacArthur, a pioneer within the circular economy movement, has called for systemic change in the need to alter our patterns of linear consumption.  This entails education surrounding how to develop meaningful relationships with natural resources and dispose of them correctly. There is no doubt that policies require international and domestic layers to solving this. 

Internationally, the Basel Convention (1989), regulates trade and movement of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. The global code dictates that waste can only be exported to developing countries with their consent. However, with the true recovery rates only revealed once they arrive at their foreign destinations, this has room for improvement. 

It may come as a shock to you that at this current time in 2019, despite generic OECD standards and country level assessments, there is no global standard for classifying countries that have sufficient infrastructure to manage imported plastic waste. My evaluation of this is, how can we measure and improve something if there are currently no metrics for improvement and reporting standards for best practice? 

Methods of mitigation exist and are all absolutely achievable through sustainable collaboration. They could include:

  • Stricter liability of producers and exporters in making them accountable for plastic recycling to ensure it is correctly shipped and managed
  • Introduce import taxes that specifically fund developing of waste management infrastructure within that given country. 

Domestically, the focus needs to be firmly focused not merely on our foreign importers’ recycling streams but on our own. In recent years, the environmental narrative has focused on the banning of single-use plastics, but this ban does not prevent any of the unrecoverable plastic waste reaching other countries!  

One could argue this needs addressing urgently as there is currently no room at the UK plastic recycling inn. Greenpeace Campaigner Fiona Nicholls argues that “Sweeping our waste under someone else’s carpet is not the solution to Britain’s plastic problem,” and “Instead of just moving our plastic scrap around the globe, we should turn off the tap at the source.”

How are the government addressing this? In December 2018, the Waste strategy and agenda stated its intention to raise up to £1 billion a year to boost recycling, ensuring that producers bear the full costs of their manufacturing. This will require firms to increase their contributions from 10% to the full net cost and report annually on waste, something that should have been enforced years ago.  

Statements from Gove are meek at best, “[W]e will use that money to ensure that across every local authority we’ve got a more consistent approach to recycling that will help citizens know exactly what they should put in which bin,” he said. “It’s absolutely vital we make sure, in particular when it comes to food waste which is an environmental, moral and economic scandal, that we do take the steps necessary in order to ensure that we use the material that all of us generate far more responsibly.”

There was no mention of the profiteering from a handful of exporting organizations and foreign gangs who are incinerating and incorrectly disposing of our plastic items that we are innocently recycling. As conscious citizens, our trust in the system and valiant recycling efforts have been subject to abuse and with a pressing environmental agenda and predictions for us missing many an environmental target, one could argue the government simply cannot afford a backlash and rise in recycling apathy from the nation. 

Recognizing the Value 

Making big businesses pay the true cost and reduce negative externalities of waste production is only one part of the policy solution. Appropriating and recognising the value and strengthening demand for domestically recycled materials as well as infrastructure is crucial. As alternative markets in the Far East continue to struggle in absorbing our displaced tonnes of trash, we need to invest at home. 

There is a large monetary incentive to embrace circularity, turning discarded plastics into new innovations. Since 2011, the UK has spent nearly £1 billion exporting our waste overseas where it is in addition to leaked into water, burned to produce energy for other nations that we don’t gain any added value from. 

This neatly ties and coincides with the findings of environmental think tank Green Alliance, who state that recycled plastics could provide 71% of domestic manufacturing demand. They also estimate reprocessing within the UK could provide over 54,000 jobs in refashioning these plastics into raw materials. 

in addition to targets potential measures to catalyse change could include: 

  • Mandatory recycled content requirements for all plastic products and packaging
  • Short-term support to kickstart the plastic reprocessing market
  • A market stabilisation fund to de-risk investment in the market

Brexit – An Impetus for Investment in Infrastructure? 

Casting a final thought to the UK’s future amidst our political Brexit upheaval, securing supplies at home are in the national interest as supply chains, deal or no deal, are set to face sobering difficulties. And what better resources to repurpose than our plastic recycling! Another motivation for investment for infrastructure is that as proclaimed by Inews, in a post-Brexit scenario, the country’s waste may be halted at the borders and subject to tariffs which could see us have to dump 10,000 tonnes more rubbish per day in our own landfill sites

A report commissioned by the Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) Industry Group, forecast that if the country continues dumping rubbish at the same rate by 2025 London, the East of England, the South East and South West will have no remaining landfill capacity. This compares to Scotland who could face depletion by 2029, Northern Ireland by 2030 and Wales by 2031. 

The investigation conducted by the RDF contextualised that exporting our rubbish for electricity and heat generation across the EU prevents 3.6 million tonnes of our waste going to landfill annually. It also saves the equivalent CO2 generation as 740,000 cars and creates 6,800 UK jobs in an industry worth close to £500 million. Thus, highlighting European membership has tangible benefits for our carbon emissions, employment and environment. 

I would hasten to add that expending efforts on deciphering if Brexit could present an opportunity for the UK to advance its waste strategies at this current time should be limited as delays to the final withdrawal agreement are looking increasingly likely. 

Final Thoughts

In a state of political disarray regarding our membership to the EU, running adjacent to the turn in global trade turmoil, waste management, in particular the UK’s plastic recycling, requires a watershed moment.

Decoding the pitfalls of the UK’s plastic recycling regulations and corruption facilitated by the financial incentives of PRNs are essential to understanding the crux of the issue. Additionally, the controversies that surround the reality of what truly happens to our exported plastic recycling as it is displaced to shores both near and far, incinerated and allowed to leak into the oceans, raise issues of morality, responsibility and accountability.

By exposing the deviant dumping of exporters, it is apparent that many are taking advantage of inequalities in lax environmental and social regulations in the developing world to offset and profit from our plastic consumption which calls into question our very own institution’s moral compass. The latent obligation for reform has also been catalysed by the trend and paradigm shift of China, Hong Kong and South East Asian countries to begin to raise the draw bridge on our ‘recyclable’ plastics and implement protectionist trade measures.

As with all policies that concern the provision a safer operating space for future generations in our own country, but also to those that inhabit the countries we export our recycled waste to, there is no one single strategy but a myriad of many. At an international level this includes introducing a global standard that recognises countries who have sufficient infrastructure to manage imported plastic waste, creating import taxes the directly fund the development of waste management of infrastructure and stricter liability for producers and exporters of plastic recycling.

To avoid scrambling for solutions as the UK reaches full dumping capacity, the domestic agenda requires a purge on consumer ‘throw-away’ culture and more than a light sprinkling of the ‘polluter pays’ mentality for producers. Rectifying our current predicament can absolutely be made possible through ensuring all organisations pay the full net cost of their plastic waste disposal, recognising the value in plastic recycling for the domestic economy and most fundamentally investing in systems and streams that prevent our natural resources from hitting the incinerators and landfills!

Bold innovations to improve recovery rates through cradle to cradle design and management strategies centred around a circular economy instead of one that is myopic and linear in its approach to waste, can stimulate demand for recycled produce and sustainable development.


Michael Braungart & William McDonough – Cradle to Cradle Remaking The Way We Make Things

Amy Brooks, Shunli Wang & Jenna Jambeck – The Chinese Import Ban and its Impact on Global Plastic Waste Trade, Science Advances, June 2018

Lucy Siegel – Turning The Tide on Plastic 

Great podcast for Financial Timers who are subscribed here 







Decipher your recycling conundrums here.

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