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Progress in UK plastic packaging recycling being shipped overseas, together with to non-OECD international locations

By Tom McBeth, Coverage & Infrastructure Supervisor with plastics useful resource effectivity group RECOUP

New knowledge reveals a rise within the quantity of plastic exported for recycling in 2023, and vital portions are actually going to creating, non-OECD* international locations.

12 months-on-year, regardless of will increase in materials being recycled within the UK, portions of plastic waste exported for recycling from England have elevated by greater than 10% to only over 600,000 tonnes. Of this, greater than 25% was despatched to Turkey, 25,000 tonnes greater than in 2022. This additionally signifies that simply in need of 1 million tonnes of plastic has been despatched to Turkey for recycling since 2017.

The subsequent largest vacation spot, Germany, acquired slightly below 10%, while materials despatched to Asia, general, elevated from round 9% in 2022, to virtually 20% in 2023. Malaysia and Vietnam, two non-OECD international locations that had acquired reducing volumes of UK waste in recent times, took round 8% every. Indonesia took an additional 3.4%, and Taiwan 2.5%.

A map exhibiting the receiving locations of plastic waste from England for recycling.

Materials to non-OECD international locations
Greater than 26% was despatched to non-OECD or creating international locations. That is considerably greater than the 16% in 2022, and 6% in 2021, when general portions had been additionally decrease, leading to a rise of 500% in three years. This quantities to 155,000 tonnes despatched to non-OECD international locations, 15,000 of which was to European Union (EU) Member States Bulgaria and Romania, and the remaining despatched to a mix of nations in non-EU Europe, Asia and Egypt.

While discussions happen round a ban on export to non-OECD international locations, these figures present the market’s resilience and suppleness at a time when recycled plastic demand was at a low throughout Europe, not least partially as a consequence of low virgin oil costs and excessive virgin plastic manufacturing, notably exterior of Europe. As such, this materials exported for recycling would possible have in any other case gone to landfill or incineration.

Cut up of plastic packaging exported for recycling by receiving nation’s OECD or non-OECD standing.

A ban on export of waste from the UK to non-OECD international locations is anticipated, being a part of the Conservative occasion’s manifesto, however a session on this didn’t materialise as anticipated in 2023. While the non-OECD EU Member States usually are not included within the proposed ban (Malta, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania), this nonetheless leaves round 140,000 tonnes of plastic exported that would want new receiving locations.

On prime of this, the EU is within the midst of varied adjustments to laws. These embody restrictions on import and export of waste into the bloc, its personal ban on exports to non-OECD international locations, and necessities for export to any nation exterior of the EU and European Free Commerce Affiliation (EFTA) being notifiable waste.

As background, the OECD is made up of 38 international locations and is commonly used as a synonym for high-income or ‘developed’ international locations. Membership has subsequently been thought of an appropriate measure for if a rustic has the infrastructure and regulation in place to obtain and course of plastic waste for recycling. Nevertheless, it must be famous that the OECD’s remit pertains to a broad vary of matters, together with coverage and commerce. Moreover, non-OECD international locations China, Indonesia and India are all thought of ‘key companions’ of the OECD, with Indonesia having expressed an curiosity in becoming a member of in late 2023. Bulgaria and Romania are additionally each candidates to affix the OECD.

Comparability of export to OECD and Non-OECD international locations between 2021, 2022 and 2023.

The metric for UK waste export coverage
It’s recognized that while international locations seen within the information with poor high quality waste administration and incidences of unlawful burning or burying of waste are extra typically non-OECD international locations, there are top quality reprocessing services in quite a lot of these international locations. Equally, being an OECD nation doesn’t assure that every one services and nationwide waste and environmental insurance policies are of a ample high quality.

This follows on from RECOUP’s Plastic Waste Exports Place that materials ought to solely be exported so long as there may be sturdy proof that the infrastructure is in place to deal with it, and to assist that guarantee unlawful, unethical or pointless exports are stopped.

All of those elements convey into query using OECD membership as the only real metric for whether or not a rustic is appropriate for accepting plastic waste for recycling.

To assist tackle these points, the UK requires growth of its recycling infrastructure, in addition to its insurance policies, to restrict the necessity for exporting of fabric within the first place, no matter the place to. An outright ban doesn’t really feel an acceptable plan of action, a minimum of not with out ample time and planning to develop home infrastructure to compensate for the lack of out there markets. A sudden ban would possible lead to extra materials being despatched to landfill, incinerated or exported to different markets. Worse nonetheless, this will likely enhance the chance that these international locations merely act as a switch station for the fabric to maneuver on to different markets.

The session on a ban to non-OECD international locations will likely be welcome, although shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. Additional consideration is required to make sure that this isn’t carried out on the expense of nations like Turkey merely taking extra materials as a substitute, or materials making its technique to creating international locations by unregulated and unlawful means. Worse nonetheless, if current international locations that at the moment obtain plastic waste for recycling can be part of the OECD with out evidencing appropriate infrastructure or practices in relation to imported plastic waste for recycling, then this calls into query using OECD as the only real standards for being permitted as a vacation spot.

Graph exhibiting the entire tonnages of plastic despatched to international locations for recycling 2017 to 2023.

Significance of digital waste monitoring and reviewing the PRN system
Digital Waste Monitoring will likely be a significant coverage, albeit one that won’t come to fruition till 2025. A system that ought to permit a reside, correct and, most significantly, clear reporting of fabric transportation each within the UK and abroad, changing the archaic paper-based system that’s at the moment in place. This a lot wanted replace will assist guarantee confidence in exports and materials finish locations. That is particularly necessary for import and export out of England, the place the lion’s share of UK materials is exported from, and Wales. Historic laws signifies that Annex VII and Inexperienced Record export knowledge shouldn’t be essentially supplied to the EA and Pure Sources Wales (NRW), in contrast to for materials going out of Scotland or Northern Eire.

Moreover, revisions must be made to the Packaging Restoration Notice (PRN) techniques first designed within the late Nineties, as they’ve financially incentivised the export of waste over processing domestically. A proper assessment of the system was referred to as for following the 2021 packaging Prolonged Producer Accountability (EPR) session in 2025. These notes act as the present packaging producer duty scheme, bought primarily based on the quantity of packaging positioned on the UK market, with the cash then supposed to be reinvested into the infrastructure to handle the waste on the finish of life. Nevertheless, PRN costs are unstable, fluctuating primarily based on recycling charges and demand, making them unsuitable for enterprise planning. At current, materials recycled within the UK is measured on the level that the recycling has taken place as soon as any contamination or non-target materials has been eliminated and materials yield losses within the recycling processes have taken place. Materials that’s exported utilizing Packaging Export Restoration Notes (PERN) contains the load of any contamination or non-target materials which may be misplaced within the recycling steps that happen abroad, previous to reaching any end-of-waste standing. Eradicating the financial variable between PRNs and PERNs primarily based on the purpose the word is claimed would make UK recycling extra economically enticing to recyclers and assist steadiness the market.

While knowledge for general recycling portions for 2023 won’t be out there for just a few months, the quantity despatched for export seems more likely to have elevated. Regardless of the resolution, the UK can’t proceed on its present trajectory, and efforts have to be constituted of the legislators to the exporters, and everybody in between, to assist flip the tide in successfully, ethically and transparently managing our nation’s personal waste.

* Organisation for Financial Co-operation and Growth (OECD)



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