The international plastics recycling market is broken. It is doubtful whether it ever worked. For most of the last decade, China was the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials, some of which were used in manufacturing. But it banned these imports as part of a “beautiful China” policy aimed at improving the environment.
Malaysia was the next country to fight back against being treated as the “dumping ground of the world” – as its environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, put it in 2019. More than 200 facilities were closed, and thousands of tonnes of waste returned, amid growing evidence of the involvement of organised crime in the global waste business. Now Turkey has rejected the role of international rubbish bin: after a Greenpeace investigation found plastics dumped in rivers, on beaches and in illegal waste mountains, it announced that most plastic waste imports (which included 209,642 tonnes from the UK in 2020) will be banned in six weeks’ time.
The truth is that recycling, as it is practised in the UK and many other rich countries where consumption levels are highest, is built on a myth. While metal and glass are recycled relatively successfully, due to their higher value, and paper and cardboard do not carry the same pollution hazards, vast quantities of supposedly recyclable plastics are worse than useless. Not only are they frequently incapable of being recycled, due to contamination and lack of quality control; the chemicals and particles released by dumping and burning are causing harm to human health, as well as landscapes and wildlife.
The over-production of plastics is a global problem that will only worsen in the absence of regulation. The polymers used to make plastics come from fossil fuels, and as markets for oil and gas shrink due to competition from renewables, companies will seek alternatives. But there is no need to wait for new international agreements: Boris Johnson’s government describes the UK as a “global leader in tackling plastic pollution” and the delayed environment bill is the obvious vehicle to drive such rhetoric into statute.
If it is to have this effect, however, the measures announced so far will have to be strengthened. The ban on sending plastic waste to non-OECD countries referred to in the Queen’s speech should be immediate, with a prohibition on mixed-plastic exports to OECD countries added – since evidence shows that there is no effective means of dealing with it. A long-awaited deposit return scheme for bottles must also be hurried up. Scotland is leading the way, and with 8bn plastic bottles thrown out each year there is no excuse for delay. And while it is all very well to talk about producer responsibility – holding manufacturers to account for the final destinations of their products – talk is all it is without a timeline and the prospect of hefty fines for breaches.
The lessons of recent decades on environmental legislation are well known: inaction in the face of overwhelming evidence has placed the world in grave danger. Now ministers must reject any temptation to sit back. Banning plastic straws and stirrers was small fry; charges for plastic bags did not sufficiently discourage their use. Aldi and Sainsbury’s have already agreed to cut single-use plastic packaging in half by 2025, and it should embarrass Mr Johnson that his government is being outdone by supermarkets.
Unless we want our planet to be engulfed by plastic, the aim must be a speedy phase-out of low-grade types such as film and bags. In the meantime, the domestic reuse and recycling industries must urgently be beefed up. As recent events in Turkey have shown, the alternative is trashing our planet.