Is all our recycling going to waste?

Authors: Kate Savin
  • Reading time: 6 min.
  • Posted on: July 15, 2020

What goes in must come out, the old adage goes. What happens, then, when we can’t handle the amount of recycling waste we in the UK create? 

We generated 222.9 million tonnes of waste in 2016, with each person producing roughly 409 kg, the weight of four adult giant pandas, alone. As a nation, we simply aren’t equipped to deal with so much waste. And while we may think the issue is dealt with when we put our bins out for collection, that waste embarks on a long and often damaging journey. 


The UK sends roughly two thirds of plastic waste overseas for recycling. A recent BBC investigation found that a lot of this waste is ending up illegally burned or abandoned in countries such as Turkey because recycling centres can’t process it properly.

The problem with plastic is that it can only be recycled if it is of good quality, meaning that it’s not contaminated and qualifies as recyclable. The unhappy reality is that we’re sending our plastic overseas to countries that will buy it cheaply, often without regard for whether they can actually process it.

In 2018, the British recycling company BIFFA was fined £350,000 for sending contaminated household waste that included nappies and sanitary towels to China, labelled as paper. In the same year, Malaysia returned 3,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste which had been sent under the guise of recyclable waste. 


All the evidence suggests that our recycling industry thinks it can get away bad practices, even though it’s regulated.

In response to the BBC’s investigation in Turkey, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said

We have pledged to ban the export of polluting plastic waste to non-OECD countries and to introduce tougher controls on waste exports, including mandatory electronic waste tracking which will make it harder for criminals to obtain and export waste illegally.

Research suggests, however, that DEFRA and the Environment Agency (EA), which are responsible for regulating recycling exports, just aren’t doing enough. A National Audit Office (NAO) report from 2018 found that the EA carried out 124 compliance visits to recyclers and exporters in 2016-17, just over a third of their target. It managed only three unannounced site visits in 2017-2018, covering 1.4% of accredited English recyclers and exporters. 

The EA is not holding British recyclers and exporters to account, which is allowing an industry that buys cheap waste and then abandons it to flourish.

This poses a serious risk to the environment. Our wasteful habits littering foreign ground with plastic and filling the air with noxious gases. We’re damaging the health not just of ocean life, but also of those living in countries that take our waste and dispose of it irresponsibly.


If that wasn’t enough, the UK is churning through vast quantities of PPE in our bid to save lives. Whilst it’s certainly right that we do all we can to stop the pandemic, this is compounding our plastic problem, and reveals how quickly we’ll forget the long-term health of the planet when our immediate individual safety is at risk.

Environmentalists warned as early as May that the coronavirus pandemic could lead to a surge in ocean pollution. Indeed, so-called coronavirus waste including masks and hand sanitiser bottles has been found littered on seabeds and floating in the water. 

 French charity Operation Mer Propre argues that “there risks being more masks than jellyfish.” Indeed, one study estimates that if every person in the UK used a single-use face mask every day for a year, it would lead to an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste. 

The Covid-19 pandemic poses further environmental risks, including closures of household waste and recycling centres (HRCWs) in line with social distancing measures. The government has pushed back a ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers for six months. And as more and more people turn to online shopping, there’s been a surge in plastic waste from deliveries. 


It all feels pretty gloomy, but there’s hope. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced this week a ‘green recovery’ from lockdown, including £88 billion of capital funding and support for 140,000 green jobs. Whilst we wait for the EA to make mandatory electronic waste tracking a reality, why don’t we invest in our recycling industry and deal with our waste ourselves. It would be a boost to our own economy as well as the health of those nations we rely on to be our dustbin. British recycling plants for British waste – isn’t that what Brexit is all about? 

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