Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan has issued a call for all UK waste exports to be banned.
His reasoning is that because the waste industry suffers from corruption, allowing recyclable materials to be sent abroad is morally questionable.
While I don’t disagree that we should be moving towards a United Kingdom that’s recycling and manufacturing products from more of its own waste domestically, the reality is that it’s simply not going to happen overnight.
The legal and correct exportation of waste is currently a vital part of the global circular economy, so it doesn’t seem useful to lump it all in with trafficking.
But before I explain why I think these comments are so damaging for the recycling industry, let’s first break down what’s been going on with waste exports and why it’s become such a hot topic in recent years.
The UK exports all sorts of waste, but the biggest problem is with plastic because it’s the hardest material to recycle.
About two-thirds of the UK’s plastic recycling is exported, due to there being far less demand for the materials domestically. The nation simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to recycle that much waste, so companies have sought out international avenues to avoid sending it to landfill.
Not only is this the more environmentally friendly option, it’s also cheaper than paying high landfill taxes.
A lot of waste is backhauled to manufacturers, leveraging empty shipping containers heading back to countries that do have the facilities and demand for recyclable materials for packaging and other products.
Prior to 2018, China bought the majority of the UK’s exported plastic waste but has since banned the importation of most plastic waste types.
In recent years, countries in South Asia and Europe have seized the economic opportunity, despite not having the same level of recycling capability as China – and it’s been falling into the wrong hands.
Reports of waste being dumped or burned near residential villages abroad have sparked outrage and likely played a part in Sir James’ motivation for making the recent comments.
But in my opinion, a blanket ban on waste exports will create far worse problems – and his words have already created ripples in the industry…
First of all, Sir James has rightly drawn attention to “illegal and damaging waste trafficking”.
Earlier this year, we featured a piece on the SunSkips blog highlighting just how much waste from wealthy countries is being dumped in poorer countries.
But Sir James’ call for an outright ban on all waste exports strikes me as overzealous to say the least, and the muddled messaging from such a high-profile official is stressing the recycling industry out.
Conflating the legal exportation of materials for RDF (refuse-derived fuel) and SRF (solid recovered fuel) with mislabeled recyclables going off to every corner of the world is misleading.
It’s especially confusing for the environmental chief to say the government needs to consider whether it’s “morally right to dump the waste we create on another country to deal with,” because in most cases the criteria for the purity of exports are rather strict.
Of course, the situations in which corrupt parties have imported UK waste to make a quick buck are deplorable and much more should be done to put a stop to it. But is the solution really to throw the baby out with the bathwater and stop exporting waste altogether?
There are plenty of businesses that are notorious for criminals to use as a front for illegal operations, but rarely is the answer to shut those industries down altogether.
I wonder if his wording was deliberately headline-grabbing in order to draw widespread attention to practices that he feels have been flying under the radar for too long. Or perhaps he’s trying to light a fire under the industry and local authorities to build more recycling and energy from waste facilities.
On top of domestic channels for recycling, SunSkips segregates and exports waste to the Netherlands and various other countries – and we do it properly. I do agree that it would be better for the UK to process it all domestically and if we had the capacity to burn it here, there wouldn’t be much sense in exporting it. But in order to stop the export of RDF and SRF, we need to grow the domestic market for it.
My view is that if these plastics can be used as fuel, then we have a moral responsibility to do that. You can spend forever trying to break down all the different polymers, but even with the most sophisticated recycling methods, it often still ends up as fuel.
At the end of the day, plastic is a fossil fuel because it’s oil. Some will say that energy from waste is simply creating another environmental problem, but recycling plastic also carries its own environmental impact: just think of the energy involved in shredding, washing, transporting…
Burning’s not as bad as one might think; you can control the emissions and it’s very well regulated nowadays.
At SunSkips, we have domestic buyers for our cardboard, wood and metal recycling, but plastic is far more complicated, so for now, exportation is the only option.
It seems I’m not the only one who thinks this was rather dangerous language on Bevan’s part.
Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin has said he’ll be writing to Sir James personally to ask him to clarify his comments.
Ellin is rightly worried about the detrimental impact to jobs and the UK economy that withdrawing from the global market would make.
Removing a valuable channel for sustainable waste management would cause far more problems than it solves and it’s further demonising an industry that’s constantly getting hammered in the headlines.
So rather than vilify valid attempts at getting the most value out of waste, we should be focusing on the real problem here: corruption.
In his speech to the Environmental Services Association, Sir James did call for harsher punishments for waste crimes, including larger fines and longer prison sentences.
He has previously described waste crime as “the new narcotics” and accuses the current legal framework of providing cover for illegal waste trafficking, rather than protecting people and the environment.
On this, we see eye-to-eye. Heavier investigation and background checks would be the best place to start to weed out the culprits inflicting the most damage, because it’s not realistic to expect customs officers to root through waste containers making sure everything is above board.
The criminal element is where the focus needs to be, because a carpet bomb approach is unlikely to make an impact on criminal exports, and it’ll have far more serious repercussions at home.
Simply put, if the government were to heed Sir James’ comments and ban waste exports overnight, it would create a landfill crisis in the UK.
Without the international market for recyclables, all the waste that could be put to good use will end up in landfill; a complete overhaul of our infrastructure to recycle it domestically isn’t going to magically appear.
The government would make an absolute fortune in landfill tax, but future generations would pay the price for the environmental impact.
Long term, the focus should be on reducing our reliance on plastic.
Picking through plastic waste is time-consuming and expensive. More and more robot picking technology is emerging, but then you still have issues with contamination.
There will always be some plastic to recycle, and private companies like SunSkips could be hired to run sites to get things up and running quicker. We are certainly big enough to scale up and rise to the challenge.
With so many countries banning imports, an end to exporting waste could be inevitable. But for now, we’ll continue to look at the most sustainable methods for recycling Cambridge and Suffolk waste, and right now, that involves the international circular economy.
SunSkips is proud to export recycling to generate energy from waste, as well as partner with local businesses where there is domestic demand.