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Is our recycling exported to landfills?

National Audit Office: government should have ‘a better handle on the risks associated with so much packaging waste being recycled overseas’
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Does our recycling end up in landfill?

The UK’s approach to calculating packaging recycling rates is not sufficiently robust, and government appears not to have faced up to underlying recycling issues, says today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

Reducing waste and using resources more efficiently are long-standing objectives for the government, and tackling packaging waste is essential to achieving these ambitions.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates the UK has exceeded its overall packaging recycling target every year since 1997, and recycled 64% of packaging in 2017 – exceeding the EU target of 55%. However, the NAO has found that these figures do not account for the risk of undetected fraud and error.

Overall the increase in packaging recycling rates has been mostly due to a growth in exports: since 2002 the quantity of packaging waste exported abroad has increased sixfold while the quantity recycled in the UK has remained the same.

Inadequate checks on exported waste

A key government initiative to ensure that packaging is recycled – the packaging recycling obligation system – has subsidised waste exports to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure it is recycled, the NAO report says.

Defra also has no evidence that the system has encouraged companies to minimise the use of packaging or make it easy to recycle.

The packaging regulations create a complex market-based system to meet packaging recycling targets. They require companies that handle over 50 tonnes of packaging per year and have a turnover higher than £2m to demonstrate that they have recycled a certain amount of packaging.

They must do this by obtaining recovery evidence notes from accredited UK reprocessors and companies exporting waste for recycling abroad.

In 2017, 7,002 UK companies registered and paid a total of £73m towards the cost of recycling packaging.

Where does our recyclable waste go?

The report identifies that the Environment Agency (EA), which is responsible for enforcing the system’s regulations in England, has ‘fallen well short of its targets for inspections’.

In 2016-17 the EA only carried out 40% of planned compliance visits to reprocessors and exporters to check they accurately report the amount of packaging recycled.

The risk that companies over-claim is potentially more acute for exporters than for UK-based recycling companies, with risks that some exported material is not recycled under equivalent standards to the UK and is instead sent to landfill or contributes to pollution.

Yet exporters rated as high risk were less likely to receive a compliance visit than those rated low risk.

Time for reform

The EA has also identified a large number of companies that may have an obligation to pay into the system but have not registered. It does not have a good understanding of how significant the financial risk could be, the NAO says.

Defra has pledged to reform the system as part of a new strategy for waste and resources. The NAO has recommended that Defra should improve its approach to calculating packaging recycling rates. It should also do more to tackle the risks associated with waste being exported for recycling overseas.

‘If the UK wants to play its part in fully tackling the impacts of waste and pollution, a tighter grip on packaging recycling is needed. 20 years ago, the government set up a complex system to subsidise packaging recycling, which appears to have evolved into a comfortable way of meeting targets without addressing the fundamental issues. The government should have a much better understanding of the difference this system makes and a better handle on the risks associated with so much packaging waste being recycled overseas.’

Head of the National Audit Office

Destinations for recycling

China was the destination of almost two-thirds of the UK’s total waste, but it banned plastic imported from the UK in January 2018.

According to a Greenpeace investigation, UK plastic waste exports to Vietnam increased by 51% in January to April 2018 – from 9,680 to 14,570 tonnes.

Exports to Malaysia also rose sharply following China’s ban; in the first four months of 2018 the UK exported 51,549 tonnes, compared with 15,612 tonnes over the same period the previous year.

Meanwhile, exports to Thailand have risen from just 123 tonnes in January to April 2017 to 6,810 tonnes this year.

According to a 2015 report published in the journal Science, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand rank in the top 10 countries for the quantity of plastic waste entering the ocean.

Key UK recycling figures

64%: reported proportion of UK packaging waste recycled in 2017 against a target of 55%.

Unknown: range of uncertainty in reported packaging recycling rates.

11 million: government’s estimate of tonnes of packaging waste used by UK households and businesses in 2017.

7,002: companies that registered as having packaging obligations across the UK in 2017.

£73 million: amount raised by the system UK-wide to help fund recycling of packaging waste in 2017.

Sixfold: increase in exports of packaging material for recycling abroad between 2002 and 2017, with exports accounting for half of the packaging reported as recycled in 2017.

124: compliance visits to recyclers and exporters carried out by the Environment Agency in 2016-17, against a target of 346.

3: unannounced site visits carried out by the Environment Agency in 2017-18, covering 1.4% of accredited English recyclers and exporters.

Click here to find out about the supermarkets and drinks giants that lobbied against recycling rules

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