Plastic Waste

Call to Action: Stop UK local authorities exporting plastic waste to Asia

The problem

In 2017, the UK was the fifth largest exporter of plastic waste.  Surprisingly, we export more plastic waste than we recycle domestically, sending most of it to the Far East. Last year, the mountains of plastic waste that had overwhelmed recycling capacity made headline news when the Government of China announced that it was ending the import of plastic waste.  With the closure of China, exports to Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, India and Indonesia have risen regardless of their capacity to process the material.  Large quantities of plastic from Asian countries ends up in the oceans. 

Globally we produce 330 million tonnes of plastic annually.  On present trends this could grow to 1.2 billion tonnes with the danger that by 2050 there would be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

Tackling the problem at source

The answer to this problem is, as ever, not straightforward.  Plastics have advantages, keeping foods fresher while some alternatives to plastic packaging have a higher carbon footprint.  Globally 90% of plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated or lost in to the environment.  

“Sweeping our waste under someone else’s carpet is not the solution to Britain’s plastic problem. Instead of just moving our plastic scrap around the globe, we should turn off the tap at the source.”


Fiona Nicholls, Greenpeace.

We must do more to create a circular economy in plastics so that as far as possible all plastic waste is either recycled or composted. But we can also find ways to reduce the need for plastics, finding alternatives that are not reliant on the production of fossil fuels.  

The Living Lent action around avoiding the purchase of single use plastics highlights the role that we have as consumers to encourage change.

The immediate problem of the export of plastic waste

However, to address the immediate issue of the export of waste, we need changes at the level of systems and national policy.  The UK has a system of subsidies designed to transfer costs of plastic disposal onto producers and retailers.  But this system currently incentivises Local Authorities to export the UK’s plastic waste.

The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility (ECCR) www.eccr.org.uk runs the UK’s Ethical Money Churches programme and has been persuading companies about the need to protect the environment for over 25 years.  ECCR has recently written to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, and Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask them to end the subsidy for sending plastic waste to Asia.  ECCR is asking church members to help achieve the elimination of the export of plastics to countries that may not be able to handle that waste well.  The focus here is on Local Authorities and recycling/waste disposal companies.

Call To Action:

Some Local Authorities may not have checked to see where the plastics that they export end up.  ECCR believes that Local Authorities should be taking responsibility for ensuring that plastics are properly disposed of, whether exported or processed in the UK. If we have the knowledge of what our Local Authority (District or Borough Council) is doing, then we can call on Councillors to act if necessary. 

ECCR is asking church members to submit Freedom of Information requests to their Local Authorities.

Can you help? 
Write a Freedom of Information request to your local authority, using the on-line website www.whatdotheyknow.com to send your request. Make sure that the words “plastic waste” are in the request so that ECCR can track the questions and responses. 

Please ask your District or Borough Council the following questions:

  1. “Can you provide a list of the companies that handle any of the Council’s plastic waste?”
  2. “What percentage of plastic waste, and what tonnage, is being exported?”
  3. “Where is the Council’s plastic waste exported, and where are those exports re-exported?”
  4. “Does the Council have a strategy to recycle plastic waste in the UK instead of exporting?”

When you’ve received your response, there are a couple of ways to follow up.

  • There is the option of writing to your local Councillors with any concerns you might have, and with a prompt to call for change.
  • You might also consider reporting this to your local press, to gather local support for change.

If you have any queries, get in touch with ECCR at:
info@eccr.org.uk.

This article has been written by ECCR, the Eccumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility. They are a faith-based coalition working for human rights, economic justice & environmental sustainability. You can find out more about them here.


Background to the questions:

1. “Can you provide a list of the companies that handle any of the Council’s plastic waste?”

ECCR will be surveying the policies of the largest waste recycling companies in the UK to determine what percentage of the plastic waste handled is exported and where.

2. “What percentage of plastic waste, and what tonnage, is being exported?”

Across the UK as a whole the percentage of plastic that is collected for recycling is 31% of which two thirds is exported (ultimately mostly to the Far East) while only one third is recycled domestically.  A system of recycling incentives involving Packaging Waste Export Recovery Notes (PERNs) has the effect of encouraging export over the development of more domestic recycling centres.  On recycling and export how does your local authority compare against the national average?

3. “Where is the Council’s plastic waste exported, and where are those exports re-exported?”

It is our expectation that Council’s will monitor where their waste is ending up.  It could be argued that under Environmental Protection Agency legislation they have an obligation to ensure that the waste that they handle is not causing environmental harm.  We hope that Councils will be collecting data on this.

Some waste is exported to European ports in Turkey and the Netherlands but is almost certainly shipped on to Asia from there.  It is our hope that Council’s will be alert to the end destination of their waste and not be under the illusion that waste exported to European destinations will remain within Europe.

4. “Does the Council have a strategy to increase recycling of its plastic waste in the UK instead of exporting?”

With the closure of China and some other countries to the import of plastic waste the increase in domestic recycling capacity is vitally important.