race waste

The injustice of the UK’s dumped plastic

Where does your recycling actually go? It’s a question I’ve looked a few times on the blog. The answer used to be China. Then waste started turning up in Malaysia or Indonesia as China started to clamp down on imports. This week Greenpeace highlight Turkey as a major destination for the UK’s plastic waste.

In a new report, Trashed, Greenpeace highlight the fact that Britain claims ‘global leadership’ on tackling plastic, but is second only to the US in plastic waste per capita. The gap between this rhetoric and the actual facts is nicely captured in this video:

The strange thing about plastic waste is that it’s very popular as a policy. 85% of British voters say they’d like to see the government take action to reduce plastic packaging. The tabloids support it, with specific campaigns run against single-use plastics. Politicians have repeatedly spoken up about it and promised action. And yet, recycling rates in Britain have flat-lined for a decade, and the amount of plastic packaging used in supermarkets is actually rising.

Why is there such a deadlock? I suspect there are two main reasons. Firstly, perhaps the lobbying power of the plastics industry – which is also the fossil fuels industry – is more powerful than voter opinion and political will. And secondly, the consequences of inaction don’t fall on us. If plastic waste was burning in the English countryside, we would act on it overnight. But it’s not – it happens far away and to other people.

That’s the point that’s raised by this report. Over half of the plastics collected for recycling in Britain are shipped abroad. Turkey takes the most by quite some margin, then Malaysia and Poland. Once the waste arrives at its destination, these shipments of mixed plastics might or might not be recycled. Often they are dumped or burned, sometimes illegally.

We have known about this for some time. Rather than solve the problem, waste simply gets shifted elsewhere, moving from one country to another as governments act to close down waste imports. So far it is tracking its way through middle income countries. It’s not hard to see where this ugly pass-the-parcel ends: with waste being shipped to the countries with the least international power, and the weakest local governance to prevent or control it. We have already seen US based plastics companies lobbying to force Kenya to accept waste imports, as a condition of a new trade deal.

Greenpeace point out the injustice of this, and the fact that “the consequences of these imports on human health and the environment are still disproportionately felt by communities of colour.”

As I described recently with cuts to the aid budget, if a policy disproportionately affects people of colour, it is a racist policy. Greenpeace state this clearly: “the UK’s current approach to plastic waste exports is part of a legacy of environmental racism carried out through dumping toxic or hazardous pollutants. As long as the UK avoids properly managing and reducing its own waste, it will be upholding this structural inequality.”

2 comments

  1. I used to get upset when I saw my neighbor throw a bag of trash into my recycle bin. I knew the bag wasn’t full of carefully washed out cans. It was just trash.
    But I’ve come to realize that most of the stuff I throw into my recycle bin doesn’t get recycled anyway. Especially the plastics.
    So, I’ve begun to throw most plastic into my trash now.
    It will get burned at an incinerator about 10 miles away.
    Not the best solution, but at least that incinerator has some pollution controls and is regulated by the EPA and the state of MA, for what that’s worth.
    I’m not happy about my decision, but I’m tired of being part of the problem that you write about in this blog post.

  2. It’s frustrating isn’t it? It’s just impossible to do the right thing – and that’s why it’s so important to push back on the idea that change is all about personal behaviour. It’s part of the equation, but the changes need to come at the system level to really make a difference.

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