If the UK wants to be a global environmental leader, it can no longer afford to sweep its plastic rubbish problem under other countries’ carpets, says a new report today, calling for a bold national policy framework to reduce ocean plastic overseas and boost domestic infrastructure investment, innovation and green jobs.
The report from UK think-tank Policy Connect says an ambitious new roadmap is needed to deliver a coherent circular and sustainable plastics policy that consumers feel proud of and protects marine life from UK plastic.
The new report – Plastics Packaging Plan: Achieving Net Zero ‘Waste’ Exports – is backed by 12 cross-party politicians and says the UK must urgently take back control of its share of the global plastics problem, highlighted in Sir David Attenborough’s hard-hitting Blue Planet TV series. It calls for new UK policies so UK plastic becomes a circular industrial resource, rather than exportable waste or environmental pollution.
Jonathan Shaw, chief executive of Policy Connect, said: “Britain’s used plastic export habit is costing our economy and the planet. We can no longer sweep our plastic rubbish problem under other countries’ carpets. We need a bold national plastics plan that we can all be proud of to protect the marine environment, to kick-start infrastructure investment and jobs, and to boost UK demand for recycled plastics.”
No longer ‘the dirty man of Europe’, the UK enjoys one of most proactive recycling regimes in the world which produces an estimated 3.5million tonnes of recyclable plastic packaging waste every year. However, UK local authorities have developed diverse approaches to recycling, which can often be confusing for consumers. Furthermore, because of the lack of investment in recycling and re-processing infrastructure, waste-to-energy facilities and policy incentives, the UK currently exports two thirds of this to other countries – 4.15m metric tonnes over the past seven years; enough to fill Wembley stadiums 26 times, roughly 4.3 stadiums per year.
Exporting our waste not only increases greenhouse gas emissions from shipping but increases the volumes of UK plastic ending up in landfill or in oceans on the other side of the world. A ‘zero export’ policy for used plastic packaging would save the equivalent CO2 emissions from shipping as taking 45,000 cars off the road every year. China’s recent import ban on plastic waste has driven UK waste exports to countries like Malaysia (17%), Turkey (16%), Poland (12%) and Indonesia (11%)1. Many countries currently reprocessing our rubbish have lower worker welfare standards, weaker health and safety regulations, and weaker environmental protection than the UK.
The report findings stop short of calling for a ban on exports but says the UK would benefit politically, economically, socially and environmentally from prioritising domestic processing over export. UK consumers want to do more for the environment so government must make it easier for local authorities to help them recycle more. The UK has the specialist innovation and skills to lead the global waste management sector.
Welcoming the new report, The Rt Hon Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, says: “Britain is a proud, responsible, ‘can do‘ nation which looks to the future. We welcome the government’s forthcoming consultation on its ambitious Resources and Waste Strategy. The right policy roadmap can turn our plastic waste problem into an economic opportunity for the UK to lead the world in waste-processing, recycled plastic, and waste-to-energy innovation and jobs.”
Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee says, “Exporting two thirds of the UK’s plastic waste overseas is bad for jobs, business and our environment. I welcome the call for the UK to commit to a bold target of zero exports of plastic packaging by 2030. Achieving this will require home-grown solutions such as implementing a Deposit Return Scheme by 2022 and applying a coffee cup levy as my Committee recommended. We can and must transition from exporting our plastic waste problem to growing our own solutions.”
Stefano Agostini, CEO of Nestlé UK & Ireland says, “In order to realise our collective ambitions of a circular economy, the UK must invest in long-term infrastructure development to facilitate waste recovery and recycling. Such a strategy must support and strengthen market engagement, from both public and private sectors, whilst ensuring equitable coverage for all across the country. As a company, we welcome the Plastics Packaging Plan, and its call for a bold national policy framework to reduce ocean plastics and strengthen domestic infrastructure.”
Tamara Galloway, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter, says, “Our research has shown the widespread impacts that plastic litter can have on marine life and on the food chain. This proposal is a most welcome step towards tackling the problem. By taking systematic action to create a more circular economy for plastic, we can make better use of this great resource and keep the oceans cleaner at the same time.”
Jacob Ainscough, author of the new Policy Connect report said: “Our oceans and their marine life are in crisis. Bolder UK regulations on packaging waste must deliver zero-export in UK plastic packaging by 2030. Our market-based recommendations in this report are backed by cross-party and business support and show that our environment and economy have much to gain from a radical, circular national plastic policy.”
Adrian Griffiths, CEO Recycling Technologies, says, “Plastic is such a valuable material in the war on carbon, it is essential that we quickly develop capacity to recycle the vast majority of it, here in the UK. Innovate UK has already helped to fund the development of new technologies such as Feedstock Recycling. With this support Recycling Technologies has developed a machine, the RT7000, to recycle plastic waste back into the feedstock from which virgin quality plastics can be made. By combining the best mechanical recycling technologies with feedstock recycling, it is possible to economically recycle over 90% of household plastics. With appropriate infrastructure funding virtually all the UK’s plastic waste could be being recycled by 2025.”